Wellor more than a year, Republicans have eyed Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona as one of their top targets for this year’s midterm elections. Kelly narrowly won his seat in a special election two years ago with just 51% of the vote, the same year Joe Biden fastened the state by about 10,000 votes. In other words, the signs point to Arizona as a swing state.
But when Blake Masters handily won this month’s GOP primary to face Kelly, some assumed the race was over. The former venture capitalist is a controversial figure history of making outlandish, racist statements – including once writing favorably of a Nazi war criminal.
While Masters trails Kelly in the polls, his campaign is apparently counting on one issue in particular — immigration — to revive his candidacy. Few Republicans have pushed the issue as hard as Masters in November.
“Mark Kelly is personally responsible for the worst border crisis our state and our nation has ever seen,” Masters said in his Aug. 3 victory speech. “He never once lifted a finger to stop it, never once used his influence to get Biden to end it, never once to this day has he simply said, stop letting illegal immigrants into this state.” On Twitter, he was just as furious. “Imagine all the terrorists who slipped in but weren’t caught,” he published. “Brought to you by Joe Biden and Mark Kelly.”
Arizona political insiders say Masters is banking on the pre-election immigration outcry to help him defeat Kelly. Immigration often plays a prominent role during campaigns in border states like Arizona, especially on the GOP side. But Masters’ focus on it is notable; he elevated it far above the issues animating other Republican candidates across the country, particularly the economy and inflation.
Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy captain, has been something of a thorn in Biden’s side on immigration. He pressed administration to give Arizona state officials more resources to deal with the surge at the border, helped to sure $1 billion in additional funding for Customs and Border Protection and publicly criticized the president for not publishing a border plan. Along with Arizona’s fellow Democratic senator, Kirsten Sinema, he chided Biden for his plan to terminate Title 42a controversial Trump-era pandemic measure that allows border officials to deport migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum.
In May, a federal judge blocked Biden from ending the program in a ruling that is likely to drag out the legal battle for months, with the case likely to reach the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, border patrol agents are on pace to make two million arrests this year, which would be a national record. Some experts said many of those arrests were migrants who had been deported under Title 42 and then tried to cross the border again.
“This is Arizona, anything is possible,” David Wells, a politics professor at Arizona State University, told TIME. “But it’s hard for me to see a scenario where Arizona voters, especially those who will decide the race, somehow see Masters as a better choice than Kelly.” So the Masters will want to play on the border.”
It’s a playbook Republicans have used before. In 2018, many GOP candidates and leaders, including then-President Donald Trump, spread fears of migrant caravan from Central America heading for the US-Mexico border. Then it didn’t work; while the strategy motivated some Republican voters, Democrats still won 41 House seats and took control of that chamber. But some political observers say any changes in America’s border policy between now and November, including the courts potentially allowing the end of Title 42, could benefit Masters.
“It’s just something to consider,” acknowledged Doug Jones, a former U.S. senator from Alabama who works to elect Democrats in the midterm elections. “I don’t think it will determine the outcome of the election, but it will be important no matter which way things go.”
Kelly’s campaign emphasized that the senator’s effort to push for increased border protections will not be lost on Arizonans. “Since taking office, Senator Kelly has worked with Republicans and Democrats to provide technology, personnel and resources to make the southern border more secure because Arizona deserves nothing less,” said Sarah Guggenheimer, campaign spokeswoman. in front of TIME. “Kelly has always put the interests of Arizonans first, even when it means going against his own party.”
Kelly, the husband of former lawmaker Gabby Giffords, who was shot in 2011 and suffered a serious brain injury, skillfully walked a political tightrope on vote with Biden 94% of the time while too distancing himself enough from the administration on some key issues. It’s a position that has endeared him to independents and even some moderate Republicans. Recent polls show Kelly with an eight-point lead in the race.
“What I’m hearing from voters is that they like him,” Sarah Longwell, a longtime Republican pollster and strategist and prominent Trump critic, told TIME. “They don’t think he’s left-wing. They don’t see it as progressive. They think he is fine.
masters fastened the GOP primary this month after winning Trump’s support by spreading the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen. The baseless claim has particularly explosive implications in Arizona, one of the states where Trump tried to overturn the result two years ago after Biden narrowly won the state. (Rusty Bowers, Arizona House Speaker who refused to go along with Trump’s scheme to reject the will of the voters, it was launched took office the same day Masters won.) Masters’ campaign was also backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, his former boss, who poured out million dollars in the race.
Political operatives insist Masters has a tougher fight than Carrie Lake, another Republican running for statewide office in Arizona and backed by Trump. Lake, a former local news anchor, narrowly won the party’s nomination for governor and is down by approx seven points against Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in the latest survey. “One of the things you hear from Arizona voters is how Cary Lake has been in the news and that they grew up with her,” Longwell says. “The Masters doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have that charisma. He has an electoral refusal. He has money. He is the Trump endorsement. And he does it on immigration.
Masters will also have to deal with the baggage of his bigoted past statements. He blamed “black people” for America’s gun violence problem and promoted the “great replacement theory” that a cabal of elites systematically replaced white people with ethnic minorities, accusative Democrats are trying to flood the nation with immigrants to “change the demographics of our country.” He once recommended of a quote from infamous Nazi official Hermann Goering as “poignant”.
His nomination was a disappointment to Republicans who believed he would alienate most of the electorate. On Monday, the Kelly campaign revealed a coalition of more than 80 Arizona Republicans supporting him for Masters. “Mark Kelly is pretending to be a Republican now that Election Day is getting closer,” Zachary Henry, communications director for Masters’ campaign, told TIME when asked about GOP leaders backing his opponent.
Masters, Lake and other far-right candidates in Arizona won their primaries by more than 300,000 votes. But to win the general election, they’ll need a million and a half, says Steve May, a former GOP state lawmaker who doesn’t believe that doubling down on Trumpism and re-litigating an election from two years ago is the best strategy.
“Trump didn’t win Arizona the last time in 2020,” May told TIME. “We chose Sinema and Kelly. I don’t think that message has broad enough appeal. The Democrats are going to have to really screw up some things to lose.
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