Blake Masters pushes immigration to overthrow Mark Kelly

For more than a year, Republicans have considered Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona 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 won the state by about 10,000 votes. In other words, the signs point to Arizona being a swing state.

Yet when Blake Masters easily won the GOP primary this month to face Kelly, some assumed the race was over. The former venture capitalist is a divisive figure with a history of making outlandish racist statements, including once writing favorably to a Nazi war criminal.

While Masters trails Kelly in the polls, his campaign is clearly counting on one issue in particular, immigration, to boost his candidacy. Few Republicans push the issue as hard as Masters did 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 lifted a finger to stop it, never used his influence to get Biden to stop it, never once said to this day: stop freeing illegal immigrants in this state. .” On Twitter, he was just as pugnacious. “Imagine all the terrorists who snuck in but weren’t caught,” he said. job. “Presented by Joe Biden and Mark Kelly.”

Arizona political insiders say Masters is betting on a pre-election immigration outcry to help him beat Kelly. Immigration often plays a prominent role during campaigns in border states like Arizona, especially on the GOP side. But Masters’ emphasis on this is remarkable; he raised it far more than the issues driving other Republican candidates across the country, especially the economy and inflation.

Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy captain, has been something of a thorn in Biden’s side when it comes to immigration. He pressed administration to provide more resources to Arizona state officials to deal with border surge, helped secure $1 billion in additional funding for Customs and Border Protection and publicly criticized the president for not releasing a border plan. Along with fellow Arizona Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema, he excoriated Biden over his plan to end Title 42, a controversial Trump-era pandemic measure that allows border officials to deport migrants without letting them in. seek asylum.

In May, a federal judge blocked Biden from ending the program, in a decision that risks dragging out the legal fight for months, with the case potentially reaching the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Border Patrol agents are on course to make two million arrests this year, which would be a national record. Some experts have said many of those arrests are of migrants who were deported under Title 42 and then attempted 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 deciding the race, somehow see Masters as a better choice than Kelly. So Masters is going to want to play all the way to the border. .

It’s a playbook Republicans have used before. In 2018, many GOP candidates and leaders, including then-President Donald Trump, raised fears of a caravan of Central American migrants heading for the US-Mexico border. It didn’t work then; 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 to U.S. border policy by November, including the courts potentially allowing an end to Title 42, could be a boon for Masters.

“It’s just something that has to be taken into account,” acknowledges Doug Jones, a former US senator from Alabama who is working to elect Democrats midterm. “I don’t think it would be decisive for the outcome of the election, but it will be important, however it goes.”

The Kelly campaign stressed that the senator’s track record of pushing for increased border protection will not be lost on Arizonans. “Since taking office, Senator Kelly has worked with Republicans and Democrats to provide the technology, personnel and resources needed to make the southern border more secure because Arizona deserves nothing less,” said Campaign spokesperson Sarah Guggenheimer told TIME. “Kelly has always put the interests of Arizonans first, even when it means standing up to her own party.”

Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in 2011 and suffered a severe brain injury, has deftly walked a political tightrope from vote with Biden 94% of the time, while distancing themselves sufficiently from the administration on certain key issues. It’s a positioning that has endeared him to independents and even some moderate Republicans. The latest poll shows Kelly with an eight point advantage in the race.

“What I hear from voters is that they like him,” Sarah Longwell, a longtime GOP pollster and strategist and prominent Trump critic, told TIME. “They don’t think he’s on the left. They don’t think he’s progressive. They think he’s fine.

Masters won the GOP primary this month after winning Trump’s endorsement 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, the Arizona House speaker who refused to go along with Trump’s plan to overthrow the voters’ will, was expelled the same day Masters won.) Masters’ campaign was also backed by the billionaire Peter Thiel, his former boss. , which has poured millions into the race.

Political operatives insist Masters has a tougher fight than Kari Lake, another GOP arsonist running for statewide office in Arizona and backed by Trump. Lake, a former local news anchor, narrowly won the party’s gubernatorial nomination and fell about seven points to Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in the latest poll. “One of the things you hear from Arizona voters is how Kari Lake was on the news and they grew up with her,” Longwell says. “Masters doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have that charisma. He has election denial. He has money. He is Trump’s endorsement. And he talks about immigration.

Masters will also have to deal with the baggage of his past bigoted pronouncements. He blamed “black people” for America’s gun violence problem and promoted the “great replacement theory” that a cabal of elites systematically replaces whites with ethnic minorities, accusing Democrats of trying to flood the nation with immigrants to “change the demographics of our country.” He once called a quote from infamous Nazi official Hermann Göring “poignant.”

His nomination was a disappointment to Republicans who believe he will alienate most of the electorate. On Monday, the Kelly campaign unveiled a coalition of more than 80 Arizona Republicans backing him against Masters. “Mark Kelly is pretending to be a Republican now that Election Day is near,” Masters campaign communications director Zachery Henry told TIME when asked about GOP leaders supporting his opponent.

Masters, Lake and other far-right candidates in Arizona won their primaries with 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 doubling down on Trumpism and reviving an election from two years ago is the best strategy.

“Trump didn’t win Arizona last in 2020,” May told TIME. “We elected Sinema and Kelly. I don’t think this message has wide enough appeal. The Democrats are going to have to really screw up some things to lose. »

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