CHANDLER, Ariz.—Blake Masters went all out with Donald Trump, and it propelled him to victory in a hard-fought Republican nomination for Arizona’s coveted Senate seat.
Now his campaign to oust Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly this fall will test whether the Trump wing has the strength to paint Arizona red again, two years after Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state in 24 years.
With Kelly’s campaign labeling Masters as a “dangerous” and fringe candidate, Masters’ strategy is to associate Kelly with an unpopular President Joe Biden and undermine his moderate image. He must unite a party fractured by an ugly primary, unlike Kelly, who ran unchallenged for his party’s re-nomination and ended June with $25 million in cash.
“I think he’s the worst senator. This guy, Mark Kelly, fights as a moderate, but he votes like a radical,” Masters told voters at his election night party in this Phoenix suburb. “We are fed up with Joe Biden and the Democrats destroying our country.”
In one of the most hotly contested Senate races of 2022, which could decide control of a chamber currently split 50-50, the newly minted Republican nominee begins his run for the general election with an electoral and fundraising deficit.
Kelly leads Masters at 49% to 44% among likely voters in Arizona in a new poll conducted by Republican firm Fabrizio, Lee & Associates for the pro-Masters super PAC Saving America.
The poll memo, provided to NBC News by a super-PAC supporting Masters, also found Biden with a dismal 38% approval rating in the state and hinted that Kelly is vulnerable when he comes across as “more liberal and im Lockstep with Biden as voters are believed to have been when they elected Kelly two years ago.”
Kelly’s team tries to brand Masters
Emma Brown, Kelly’s campaign manager, said the senator is “an independent leader who breaks through political noise to deliver real results for Arizona residents, like reducing grocery and gas pump costs” and “creating well-paying… Jobs in Arizona”.
“Blake Masters has dangerous beliefs that are totally incompatible with Arizona and are detrimental to Arizona families — such as a national abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest and privatization of social security‘ Brown said on Wednesday.
The GOP has an advantage in voter registration in Arizona. But the state has a history of favoritism for institutionalist Republicans, from Senator John McCain to Senator Jeff Flake to outgoing Governor Doug Ducey. It’s unclear whether Masters, a Trump disciple who supported the Jan. 6 objection to some voter counts in 2020, can win over moderate and well-educated voters who have strayed from Republicans in the recent election.
Masters “is all Trump,” said Brooks D. Simpson, a political historian at Arizona State University. “He believes in the illegitimacy of the 2020 election.”
“The outcome will shape discussions about whether Arizona is now a purple or even a blue state; it will be a measure of Trump’s influence in a state he narrowly lost in 2020; and it will tell us how the extreme Trump Republicans’ messages will resonate with voters in a general election,” he said.
Masters recalibrated for general election
The newly minted candidate pleaded for GOP unity on Tuesday after defeating businessman Jim Lamon and Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
“You may have noticed that we’ve had a spirited primary race here. And it got a little loud. Maybe it got a little mean,” Masters said. “If you have endorsed another main candidate, all is well. I get it. He probably had good ideas. But now it is time to unite.”
Home to educated and affluent suburbs like Paradise Valley and Scottsdale, the Phoenix metropolitan area accounts for about two-thirds of the state’s population. Kelly’s path to victory, his team said, is strong Democratic turnout, keeping voters pissed at Republicans and maintaining high Latino support.
Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist who advises the Pro-Masters Saving Arizona PAC, said the plan for Masters to defeat Kelly was “really simple.”
“Just associate him with Joe Biden, who is very unpopular in Arizona, and Joe Biden’s even more unpopular politics,” Surabian said, adding that Masters needs to “dominate in the rural areas” and “remain competitive in Maricopa” in the die County not lose “double digits”. He said it would help “to outshine a little in a state like Arizona with Hispanics.”
Kelly is currently run a TV ad Attack the “price gouging” of oil companies who are “making record profits” by exploiting a crisis and demanding a federal gas tax cut. His campaign rolled in Spanish language ad announcing his support for Arizona’s small businesses.
When asked about Masters’ portrayal of him as an extremist in step with Biden, a Kelly campaign strategist said the Democrat had shown his willingness to “stand against the President,” citing his opposition to Biden revoking the Trump-era Title 42 border rule and his Letter Urging Biden to take action against high gas prices. The strategist added that Kelly outperformed Biden in Arizona in 2020.
“Trump Kelly voters really do exist,” the strategist said.
This week, Kelly was in Washington as the Senate voted on a bill that would provide health care benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins. He hailed elements of the Democrats’ grand agenda package that emerged from an accord between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., including a provision authorizing Medicare to negotiate drug pricing and health insurance funding Network coverage and clean energy. Kelly has also touted his support for the latest bill that will provide new investment in US computer chip manufacturing and the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Arizona progressives say Kelly is not as left-leaning as they would like. But they find him approachable and accommodating.
“He’s not a senator who I would say agrees 100% with everything progressives and Democrats are calling for Arizona. But he communicates with us all the time,” said Luis Ávila, 40, a community organizer in Phoenix. “But he has town halls; he has meetings with us; He travels the state and meets with constituencies. So at least we know where he stands.”
“A Bold America First Caucus in the Senate”
Masters concluded the primary with a television spot touting support for Trump, an example of the former president’s influence on committed Republican voters in the state.
At an election night rally in Phoenix alongside election conspiracy theorist and Republican 2020 gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Masters served up red meat and a cocktail of cultural grievances about legal abortion, “critical race theory,” the 1619 Project, “awakened ideology,” and big tech. He said the only good reason not to impeach Biden and remove him from office is that Vice President Kamala Harris would replace him.
“Pretty soon,” Masters told the cheering crowd Monday, “we’re going to have a brave America First faction in the Senate.”
One Masters supporter in the crowd, 56-year-old Phoenix resident Kristin Zenk, said she was concerned Kelly would not be easy to defeat.
“Because people like him,” Zenk said. “He is sympathic.”
https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2022-election/liberal-mark-kelly-dangerous-blake-masters-arizonas-key-senate-showdow-rcna41345 Arizona’s crucial Senate showdown is heating up fast