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The McConnell-Thiel Standoff Over Blake Masters
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The McConnell-Thiel Standoff Over Blake Masters

Nobody wants to bankroll Masters’ final push for an Arizona Senate seat.

Over the next week, both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and billionaire Peter Thiel will hold fundraisers for Blake Masters, the Republican newcomer challenging Democratic Sen. Mike Kelly in Arizona this November. Attendees may want to ask the two men why they aren’t putting their own money where their mouths are.

Thiel, a personal mentor of Masters whose $15 million in super PAC support helped put him over the top in last month’s primary, has balked at continuing to spend on Masters in the general. And McConnell’s affiliated PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, announced late last month it was canceling half of the $16 million it had committed to the race. On Tuesday the PAC went further—it announced it would pull out of the contest altogether, opting instead to focus on Georgia, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

“We’re glad to see Republican outside forces showing up in a big way in Arizona, with millions in new spending pledged to take down Mark Kelly in the final stretch,” SLF President Steven Law said in a statement. “This allows us to pursue offensive opportunities, maximize our investment in existing commitments, and concentrate our efforts to win the Senate majority. We remain optimistic that the issue environment is in our favor, we have multiple pathways to obtain the majority, and we are spending heavily and strategically to achieve that goal.”

It’s true that other groups, including a PAC affiliated with Heritage Action for America, have hopped into Arizona in support of Masters in recent weeks. But these buys—roughly $7.5 million in all—don’t cover the amount the SLF pulled in late August; arguing they remove the need for SLF spending altogether is bizarre.

But not as bizarre, perhaps, as the reason Thiel has reportedly given for refusing to spend more: The Washington Post, citing people familiar with his thinking, recently reported that the billionaire believes “any more of his money would be used as a Democratic talking point.”

What’s happening is a game of chicken. McConnell thinks that Thiel, having saddled him with an inexperienced candidate with unusually high unfavorability numbers for a newcomer (and one who spent the primary trashing McConnell to boot), should at least have the decency to foot the outside-spending bill. Nonsense, thinks Thiel: I’m interested in pushing a particular kind of candidate to prominence within the Republican Party, but actually beating the Democrat afterward is McConnell’s job.

Nobody but McConnell knows whether Tuesday’s withdrawal from Arizona will be permanent for the cycle—whether it represents the end of the game of chicken or just the latest escalation of it.

Incumbents nearly always beat their challengers silly in the fundraising game, but in Arizona this year the gap has been particularly huge: Kelly had $24.8 million on hand as of this summer’s filings, compared to just $1.6 million in the bank for Masters.

Masters’ fundraising has picked up during the current quarter, thanks in part to increased fundraising support from Republicans like McConnell and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

“Blake Masters is gaining momentum,” campaign spokesman Zachery Henry told The Dispatch. “We’re seeing that on the ground every day—voters learn more about Kelly’s extreme voting record and they’re rejecting him.”

But with both McConnell and Thiel sitting on their hands, there’s little question that the vast majority of the ad spending in Arizona down the stretch will be in support of Kelly. Henry declined to comment on SLF pulling its support.

Another name hangs over Republican fundraising this cycle: Donald Trump, who is sitting on a campaign war chest of more than $100 million despite not being on the ballot this year. His continued prominence in the party, operatives argue, has made it more difficult for other candidates to do small-dollar fundraising this year.

“It certainly puts a little bit of stress on the low-dollar donors who you want to be funding Blake Masters and J.D. Vance and Dr. Oz and Herschel Walker and everybody else, and instead that money is flowing into the Trump coffers,” one Republican strategist told The Dispatch Tuesday. “Why Trump, who was also active in endorsing candidates, isn’t putting some of that money down is probably a question that ought to be asked as well.”

Trump’s endorsement, no less than Thiel’s money, helped carry Masters to victory over state Attorney General Mark Brnovich and businessman Jim Lamon last month. But there’s a reason McConnell has pestered Thiel rather than Trump to spend more on Masters: Trump has shown little indication he particularly cares who controls the Senate next year. 

MAGA Republicans are gearing up to blame someone should Masters fail to unseat Kelly. And, spoiler alert, it’s neither Thiel nor Trump. The Arizona Republican Party, which is chaired by MAGA firebrand Kelli Ward, sent an open letter to McConnell last week urging him to redouble his efforts to support Masters. “We are running out of time!”the letter says. “We believe if you were to shore up your support of Blake Masters publicly and financially, you would help him fend off the attacks, defeat Mark Kelly, and return the Arizona Senate seat into Republican hands.”

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.