Blake Masters Pushing Immigration to Unseat Mark Kelly
For more than a year, Republicans viewed Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona as one of their biggest targets for this year’s midterms. Kelly won the seat by a narrow margin in the special election two year ago, with 51% of votes. This was the same year Joe Biden won the state by approximately 10,000 votes. In other words, the signs indicate that Arizona is a swing State.
Some thought the race had ended when Blake Masters won the GOP primary to replace Kelly. The former venture capitalist is a divisive figure with a history of making outlandish, racist statements—including once writing favorably of a Nazi war criminal.
While Masters is trailing Kelly in the polls, his campaign is clearly counting on one issue in particular—immigration—to revive his candidacy. Masters, like few other Republicans, is advocating for the issue with as much passion going into November.
“Mark Kelly is personally responsible for the worst border crisis our state and our nation have ever seen,” Masters said in his Aug. 3 victory speech. “He has never once lifted a finger to stop it, has never once used his influence to make Biden end it, has never once to this day simply said: stop releasing illegal immigrants into this state.” On Twitter, he’s been equally pugnacious. “Imagine all the terrorists who snuck in but weren’t caught,” he posted. “Brought to you by Joe Biden and Mark Kelly.”
According to Arizona insiders, Masters bets on an immigrant outcry in order to beat Kelly. In border states such as Arizona, immigration is often a key issue in campaigns. This includes the GOP. But Masters’ focus on it is notable; he has elevated it far more than 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. Kelly pressed the Obama administration to provide more resources for Arizona’s state officials in order to resolve the problem at the border. He also helped secure $1 billion for Customs and Border Protection and publicly criticised the President for failing to release a plan. Along with Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, he excoriated Biden on his plan to end Title 42, a controversial Trump-era pandemic measure that lets border officials expel migrants without letting them apply for asylum.
A federal judge stopped Biden’s program from being ended in May. This ruling is expected to prolong the legal battle for several months and could even reach the Supreme Court. Border Patrol agents expect to arrest two million people this year. That would constitute a major national record. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security have stated that most of those arrested are migrants who tried crossing again after being expelled under Title 42.
“It’s Arizona, anything is possible,” David Wells, a politics professor at Arizona State University, tells TIME. “But it’s hard for me to see a scenario where the voters of Arizona, especially the ones who will decide the race, somehow see Masters as a better choice than Kelly. So Masters is going to want to play up the border.”
It’s a playbook Republicans have used before. Trump was one of many GOP presidential candidates. He and other leaders spread fear about an immigrant caravan heading towards the U.S./Mexico border. It didn’t work then; while the strategy motivated some Republican voters, Democrats still gained 41 House seats and took control of that chamber. But some political observers say that any changes to America’s border policy from now until November, including the courts potentially allowing for the end of Title 42, could be a boon to Masters.
“It’s just something that has to be factored in,” acknowledges Doug Jones, a former U.S. Alabama Senator who works to elect Democrats during the midterms. “I don’t think it would be determinative of the outcome of the election, but it will be important, no matter which way that goes.”
The Kelly campaign emphasized that the Senator’s track record of pushing for increased border protections will not be lost on Arizonans. “Since taking office, Sen. Kelly has worked with Republicans and Democrats to deliver technology, staffing, and resources to make the southern border more secure because Arizona deserves nothing less,” Sarah Guggenheimer, a campaign spokesperson, tells TIME. “Kelly has always put the interests of Arizonans first, even when that means standing up to his own party.”
Kelly, husband of ex-Rep. Gabby Giffords was injured in an attack on her home and shot. Kelly has mastered the art of walking a tightrope. voting with Biden He is able to keep his distance from the president on key issues while still being a good 94% of time. It’s a positioning that has endeared him to independents and even some moderate Republicans. Kelly holds a eight point advantage according to recent polling.
“What I hear from voters is that they like him,” Sarah Longwell, a longtime GOP pollster and strategist and prominent Trump critic, tells TIME. “They don’t think he’s left wing. They don’t think he’s progressive. They think he’s fine.”
Masters clinched the GOP primary this month after garnering Trump’s endorsement by spreading the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen. This baseless assertion has explosive implications for Arizona, where Trump attempted to reverse the result two years ago when Biden won narrowly. (Rusty Bowers, the Arizona House speaker who refused to go along with Trump’s scheme to reject the will of the voters, was booted out of office the same day Masters won.) Masters’ campaign was also buoyed by billionaire Peter Thiel, his former boss, who poured millions of dollars into the race.
The political operators insist Masters faces a more challenging fight than Kari Lake, another GOP firebrand and candidate for the Arizona state statewide election. They are also backed by Trump. Lake, a former local news anchor, narrowly won the party’s nomination for governor, and is down by roughly seven points against Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in the latest polling. “One of the things you hear from Arizona voters is how Kari Lake was on the news and that they grew up with her,” Longwell says. “Masters doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have that charisma. He’s got election denialism. He’s got money. He’s Trump’s endorsement. And he’s making it about immigration.”
Masters must also deal with the baggage of his racist past comments. He’s blamed “Black people” for America’s gun violence problem and has promoted the “great replacement theory” that a cabal of elites is systematically replacing white people with ethnic minorities, accusing Democrats of trying to flood the nation with immigrants to “change the demographics of our country.” He once referred to a quotation from the infamous Nazi official Hermann Göring as “poignant.”
Republicans disappointed in his nomination felt he would alienate the majority of voters. The Kelly campaign revealed a group of over 80 Arizona Republicans who support him. “Mark Kelly is pretending to be a Republican now that Election Day is close,” Zachery Henry, the Masters’ campaign’s communications director, tells TIME, when asked about the GOP leaders who are backing his opponent.
Masters, Lake, and the other far-right candidate in Arizona won their primaries with over 300,000 votes. But to win the general election, they will need a million and a half, says Steve May, a former GOP state legislator, who doesn’t believe doubling down on Trumpism and re-litigating an election from two years ago is the best strategy.
“Trump didn’t win Arizona last time in 2020,” May tells TIME. “We elected Sinema and Kelly. I don’t think that message has a broad enough appeal. Democrats are going to have to really screw some things up in order to lose.”
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