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Despite It All, Can Blake Masters Win?
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Despite It All, Can Blake Masters Win?

Arizona’s Senate race looked all but over in September. But Blake Masters is capitalizing on a new wave of voter angst.

Blake Masters carries 2-year-old son Rex to the stage at a campaign rally in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

PHOENIX, Ariz.—In early September, Blake Masters’ campaign looked doomed. Arizona’s Republican Senate hopeful was struggling to make up ground against Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in the polls, buried under a barrage of negative ads and lacking the campaign funds to hit back. And when a prominent Republican super PAC affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced in late September it was cutting bait to focus its spending on other states, it felt like Masters’ epitaph.

But now a perfect storm of circumstance has buoyed Masters’ campaign, and Kelly’s once-comfortable six-point lead in RealClearPolitics’ polling average one month ago has suddenly shrunk to 2.5. One Republican pollster last week put the campaigns just one point apart—a fact Kelly’s campaign highlighted in a Sunday fundraising email warning that “this race could not be any closer.”

In a 50-50 Senate with a whole buffet of swing states up for grabs, there are a few viable paths to a Republican majority. But any map that includes a Masters win is a very grim sign for Democrats.

“If Blake can pull it out, it’ll show just how bad the environment is for a middle-of-the-road, well-funded Democrat,” Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist who worked with Masters during the primary, told The Dispatch. “Blake has the wind at his back, but that’s mostly because of the terrible inflation and economic climate we face.”

In the national press, Masters is known for his affiliation with right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who has put tens of millions of dollars into the race, and his perceived alignment with the “new right,” a political coterie organized around the principle that American institutions are broadly and deeply broken, having been run into the ground by a scabrous political and cultural elite. (Flag-bearers include GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ohio’s J.D. Vance, another Thiel-funded Republican Senate candidate.) 

It’s not a far-fetched comparison. Masters, a venture capitalist and political newcomer, aligns with the new right on an array of issues, including big tech regulation and even taxing the endowments of Ivy League schools.

“Sometimes it’s very commonsensical and stuff that 80 percent of people agree with,” Masters told The Dispatch last week when asked about areas of agreement with the new right. “Like, hey, let’s fund the police and not defund the police. And I think I’m leading on other issues like big tech—like we need to call for an investigative team that forcefully embeds in Google six weeks before every election to make sure that they’re not changing their algorithms to put their thumb on the scale.”

There’s also Masters’ eyebrow-raising public embrace of several “subversive” thinkers—the prominent paleocon (and later white nationalist crank) Sam Francis and the anti-tech ecoterrorist Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber.

Those endorsements may not register with most Arizona voters, but they have contributed to a general sense of normie puzzlement about a candidate many view as just a little odd. “We’ve reached double digits of questionable things the guy’s said,” said one Trump-turned-Biden Arizona voter last month, according to a focus group reported on by the Cook Political Report.

A less splashy problem has been Masters’ lack of political discipline, which was particularly pronounced early in the race. Democrats have messaged relentlessly on his offhand suggestion, made during a primary debate, that “maybe we should privatize Social Security.” And on abortion, Masters’ shifting statements—while not necessarily entailing an actual shift in policy—have left him open both to charges from the left of being a radical restrictionist and charges from the right of being unacceptably permissive toward the practice.

Combine all this with a staggering money gap—the Kelly campaign has spent more than $62 million this cycle, compared to less than $7 million by Masters—and it’s not exactly shocking that Masters has remarkably high unfavorability ratings for a first-time candidate. A CNN poll of Arizona voters earlier this month found him 16 points underwater in the metric: 32 percent positive perception, 48 percent negative perception. (In the same poll, Kelly was 10 points in the black: 49 percent positive, 39 percent negative.)

Furthermore, Arizona can be a tricky state for Republicans to navigate in general these days. Once a GOP stronghold with a robust moderate pedigree exemplified by the late Sen. John McCain, the state has both purpled and sprouted an insurgent MAGA wing, originally as a result of Donald Trump’s hard-charging rhetoric on immigration. The state GOP is chaired by Kelli Ward, a former state senator and two-time failed Senate contender who became Arizona’s biggest cheerleader of Trump’s false claims that Biden’s 10,000 vote win was fraudulent. (Masters used to state baldly that “I think Trump won in 2020,” but has since retreated to the slightly more nuanced argument that tech companies interfered enough to give Biden the win.)

This intra-Republican culture clash can play out in funny ways. At a Turning Point Action get-out-the-vote event featuring Masters in Casa Grande last week, state Rep. Teresa Martinez called Casa Grande “as of yesterday a moderate Republican town.” The audience clapped, but she cut them off: “It’s moderate! It’s moderate!” The town’s mayor had endorsed Kelly the day before; she’d meant it as a dig.

That’s a long list of difficulties for one first-time candidate to overcome. Yet on the other side of the scale Masters has the help of several major factors.

First are the national fundamentals. President Joe Biden remains widely unpopular across the country but especially in Arizona, where a Morning Consult poll this month found his net approval at -18. Inflation and a possible looming recession remain voters’ chief political concerns: The Phoenix metro area saw record 13 percent year-over-year inflation last month and gas hovers around $5 a gallon. And an outsize number of Arizona voters—13 percent, in a recent Marist poll—see immigration as the defining issue of the midterms, another area in which Biden gets low marks.

So it’s easier for Masters to tack toward the middle without losing the enthusiasm of his base in the process. Take immigration, for example: Against a backdrop of  record-high border crossings and record-long backlogs for asylum courts, Masters says he’s willing to sign onto some sort of comprehensive immigration reform in the future while insisting that the wide-open border be addressed first. 

Which, by the way, would include reforming the broken asylum system. “I’m in favor of hiring way more USCIS judges, like right away,” Masters told The Dispatch last week.

National trends alone probably wouldn’t boost Masters enough to catch Kelly. But he also benefits from an unlikely political ally: Republican gubernatorial candidate and former local TV host Kari Lake. The two have regularly campaigned together, and “BLAKE AND LAKE” billboards and yard signs abound across the state.

Like Masters, Lake is a Trump-endorsed political newcomer. Unlike Masters, she has shown little regard for courting the center in the wake of her primary victory.

But she’s also a preternaturally gifted candidate whose rhetorical polish was honed through decades in TV studios. Her gift is for embedding genuinely radical positions—like insisting both the 2020 election and her own primary were thick with fraud, or denouncing the COVID vaccines as “experimental”—in a message that both appeals to the hardliners and still scans as common-sense to suburban grandmas who watch Fox News. Plus her Democratic opponent, Arizona secretary of state and onetime Resistance darling Katie Hobbs, has turned out to be a surprisingly weak campaigner.So a favorable national environment and strong coattails from the governor’s race? Don’t count Blake Masters out just yet.

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Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.