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Masters faces high stakes at Arizona Senate debate

Arizona Senate hopeful Blake Masters (R) faces a critical moment with this week’s televised debate against Sen. Mark Kelly (D) as he seeks to turn around his struggling campaign.

The past several weeks have seen prospects dimming for Masters, who has struggled to break through amid concerns over his hard-right views and the decision from a super PAC with ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to yank millions of dollars of spending from the race.

Now with less than five weeks to go before the midterms, Republicans are hoping Masters, who has the backing of former President Trump, can use the opportunity to appeal to a broader swath of voters in a race that is seen as crucial to flipping the upper chamber.

“Blake is a real smart guy, that is not in dispute,” said GOP strategist Barrett Marson, who’s previously worked on Masters’s campaign. “However, he has made some gaffes in the recent past that have not helped him, so just hoping he practices. Practice, practice, practice. And that he has his talking points and that he’s scripted.”

Masters, a venture capitalist with ties to GOP megadonor Peter Thiel, leaned into the culture wars before and even after the primary, falsely claiming children were being taught to be transgender and slamming Democrats over their “diversity obsession.” He’s taken heat for his past comments on issues like abortion and gun violence, including when he claimed that abortion rights advocates saw the medical procedure as a “religious sacrifice” and for suggesting that Black people were the cause of gun violence. 

Post-primary, Masters’s campaign scrubbed some of his far-right stances from his website and made attempts at moderating his messaging. But recent polling shows that tactic might not be working among voters.

“… The primary was such a narrow band when compared to the general election population of likely voters that what Mitch McConnell said and meant, talking about poor candidate selection, we’re seeing on the ground here,” said Kevin DeMenna, an Arizona Republican consultant and longtime supporter of former Rep. Matt Salmon (Ariz.), who lost the GOP nomination for governor this year.

Republicans and political observers also point to the wide cash advantage that Kelly holds over Masters. Kim Fridkin, a foundation professor for the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, said that the financial advantage has allowed Kelly to define himself early on in the race, especially given that the former NASA astronaut didn’t have a primary challenger.

“Masters is pretty much an unknown in the state, I would say still, and so he didn’t really get a chance to define himself, and that I think is problematic,” she said. 

Republicans see the debate as an important platform for Masters to make his case to voters and contrast himself with Kelly. But time is running out, as early voting in the state starts Oct. 12 and Election Day is less than five weeks away.

“Blake Masters has the issues in his favor. He’s a very intelligent and successful guy. The debate offers him a chance to hammer Mark Kelly on the issues that Arizonans know he has failed them on, namely inflation, border security, and crime. If he does that effectively, and we know he will, he will see a nice bounce coming out of Thursday night,” said T.W. Arrighi, national press secretary for Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.

Masters needs to use the debate to appeal to moderates and split-ticket voters, Republicans say.

“The message that Blake Masters needs to deliver has to have appeal to the middle, the Arizona centrist voter, and it has to be authentic,” DeMenna said. 

Winning the support of unaffiliated voters in Arizona in particular will be critical for both candidates. Data as of August from the Arizona secretary of state’s office shows that Republicans and voters listed as “other” make up roughly the same percentage of voters in the state — 34.5 percent and 33.7 percent, respectively. Democrats follow closely behind, at about 31 percent.

Some polling shows Kelly leading Masters by as much as double digits among the independent voter bloc. A Marist Poll released last week found that Kelly led Masters 51 percent to 34 percent among independent voters alone, while another poll released last month by OH Predictive Insights found the senator receiving 43 percent of support among independents, while Masters only received 28 percent. 

A CBS News-YouGov Battleground Tracker survey released Wednesday showed Masters closing the gap with independents, receiving 48 percent compared to Kelly’s 49 percent. 

“When Trump selected Masters, the Trump bump paid off. The dividend that it paid was his winning that primary,” DeMenna said. “At this point, the Arizona electorate is divided into the thirds, one-third is Republican. And frankly, only half of that is what it takes to win that primary, but not what it takes to have general election appeal.”

Masters’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

In a sign that Republicans have renewed their efforts in the race, CNBC reported that Thiel suggested to guests during a fundraising event that he hosted at his home in Los Angeles for Masters that he would be helping the Republican candidate, though it’s uncertain how.

Trump is also returning to the state on Sunday to give a boost to his endorsees in the state, including Masters, gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R) and others. Republicans see sharing the stage with the former president as an important moment for Masters and one that will increase media attention of the candidate, but some acknowledge Trump may focus the rally on past grievances instead of the midterms.

Democrats, for their part, see Trump’s visit as a sign of weakness.

“The fact that Trump feels like he has to come here a month out from Election Day shows you where the race is,” said one Democratic strategist. 

The same strategist noted that the “relitigation of the Big Lie — that’s 100 percent going to be the focus of Trump while he’s there. And so Masters will have be back to defending that, and I think that’s not helpful.”

Arizona Democratic consultant Bill Scheel agreed that the former president’s presence in the state would not be helpful to Masters, suggesting that “the more it’s about Trump, the worse for him.” 

Others are also unconvinced that Thursday’s debate will move the needle with voters. Fridkin, the professor, said it’s unlikely many will tune into the debate and suggested that Kelly would need to have a “problematic performance” in order for the dynamic to shift. 

Debate aside, Republicans still think Masters has a shot at the seat but acknowledge it’s coming down to the wire.

“I think Blake has to be buoyed by the fact that there has been, again, tens of millions of dollars spent on him on TV. I can’t turn on the TV without seeing either a pro-Kelly or anti-Blake Masters ad, and yet he’s still within striking distance,” said Marson, the GOP strategist. 

“He’s had a couple of fundraisers that brought in probably decent money, so he’s up with his own ads as well,” he also said of Masters. “You know, it’s not too late. But the clock is getting closer to midnight.”

Updated: 9:44 a.m.

Tags Arizona Senate debate Blake Masters Blake Masters Donald Trump Mark Kelly Mark Kelly Matt Salmon Mitch McConnell Peter Thiel Peter Thiel

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