CHANDLER, Ariz. — Blake Masters went all in with Donald Trump, and it propelled him to victory in a highly competitive Republican nomination for Arizona’s coveted Senate seat.
Now, his campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly this fall will test whether the Trump wing is strong enough to repaint Arizona red two years after Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state in 24 years.
As Kelly’s campaign labels Masters a “dangerous” and fringe candidate, Masters’ strategy is to tie Kelly to an unpopular President Joe Biden and undercut his image as a moderate. He’ll need to unite a party fractured by an ugly primary, unlike Kelly, who ran unchallenged for his party's renomination and ended June with $25 million cash on hand.
“I think he’s the worst senator. This guy, Mark Kelly, he campaigns as a moderate, but he votes like a radical,” Masters told voters at his election night party in this Phoenix suburb. “We are sick of Joe Biden and the Democrats destroying our country.”
In what is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in 2022, one that could decide control of a chamber that is currently split 50-50, the newly minted Republican nominee begins his general election bid with a polling and fundraising deficit.
Kelly leads Masters 49% to 44% among likely Arizona voters in a new survey conducted by Republican firm Fabrizio, Lee & Associates for the pro-Masters super PAC Saving Arizona.
The polling memo, provided to NBC News by the super PAC, also found Biden with a dismal approval rating of 38% in the state and suggested that Kelly is vulnerable if he is perceived as “more liberal and in lockstep with Biden than voters believed when they elected Kelly two years ago.”
Kelly's team seeks to brand Masters
Kelly campaign manager Emma Brown said the senator is “an independent leader who cuts through political noise to deliver real results for Arizonans, like lowering costs at the grocery store and gas pump” and “creating good-paying Arizona jobs.”
“Blake Masters has dangerous beliefs that are wildly out of step with Arizona and harmful to Arizona families — like a national abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest and privatizing Social Security,” Brown said Wednesday.
The GOP has a voter registration advantage in Arizona. But the state has a history of favoring institutionalist Republicans, from Sen. John McCain to Sen. Jeff Flake to outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey. It is unclear if Masters, a Trump disciple who has backed the Jan. 6 objections to counting some 2020 electors, can win moderate and well-educated voters who have drifted away from Republicans in recent elections.
Masters “is all Trump,” said Brooks D. Simpson, a political historian at Arizona State University. “He buys into the illegitimacy of the 2020 election.”
“The outcome will shape discussions about whether Arizona’s now a purple or even a blue state; it will be a measure of Trump’s influence in a state he narrowly lost in 2020; and it will tell us how the messages offered by extreme Trump Republicans resonate with voters in a general election,” he said.
Masters recalibrates for general election
The newly minted nominee made a plea for GOP unity Tuesday, after defeating businessman Jim Lamon and state Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
“You may have noticed we had a spirited primary contest here. And it got a little loud. Maybe it got a little mean,” Masters said. “If you supported a different primary candidate, it’s all good. I get it. He probably had good ideas. But now it’s time to unite.”
The Phoenix metropolitan area, flush with well-educated and prosperous suburbs like Paradise Valley and Scottsdale, makes up about two-thirds of the state’s population. Kelly’s path to victory, his team said, is strong Democratic turnout, holding the voters who have soured on Republicans and maintaining high Latino support.
Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist advising the pro-Masters Saving Arizona PAC, said the blueprint for Masters to defeat Kelly is “really simple.”
“Just tie him to Joe Biden, who’s very unpopular in Arizona, and the even more unpopular policies of Joe Biden,” Surabian said, adding that Masters will need to “dominate in the rural” areas and “keep it competitive in Maricopa” and not lose the county “by double digits.” He said it would help to “over-perform a little bit with Hispanics in a state like Arizona.”
Kelly is currently running a TV ad attacking corporate “price gouging” by oil companies who are “earning record profits” by exploiting a crisis and calling for a cut to the federal gas tax. His campaign rolled out a Spanish-language ad touting his support for Arizona's small businesses.
Asked about Masters’ portrayal of him as an extremist in lockstep with Biden, a Kelly campaign strategist said the Democrat has shown a willingness to “stand up to the president,” citing his opposition to Biden revoking the Trump-era Title 42 border rule and his letter pushing Biden to act against high gas prices. The strategist added that Kelly outperformed Biden in Arizona in 2020.
“Trump-Kelly voters are real,” the strategist said.
This week, Kelly was in Washington as the Senate voted on a bill to provide health care benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins. He praised elements of the Democrats’ big agenda package, which grew out of a deal between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., including a provision empowering Medicare to negotiate drug prices as well as funding for health insurance coverage and clean energy. Kelly has also touted his support for the recent law that will provide new investments in U.S. computer chip production and the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure law.
Progressives in Arizona say Kelly isn’t as left-leaning as they want him to be. But they find him accessible and forthcoming.
“He’s not a senator that I would say aligns 100% with everything that progressives and Democrats are asking for Arizona. But he constantly is communicating with us,” said Luis Ávila, 40, a community organizer in Phoenix. “But he has town halls; he has meetings with us; he’s traveling across the state and meeting with constituencies. So at least we know where he stands.”
'A bold America First caucus in the Senate'
Masters closed the primary with a TV ad touting Trump’s endorsement, an illustration of the former president’s influence over committed Republican voters in this state.
At an election eve rally in Phoenix alongside 2020 election conspiracy theorist and Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake, Masters served up red meat and a cocktail of cultural grievances over legal abortion, “critical race theory,” “The 1619 Project,” “woke ideology” and Big Tech. He said the only good reason not to impeach Biden and remove him from office is that Vice President Kamala Harris would replace him.
“Pretty soon,” Masters told the cheering crowd Monday, “we’re going to have a bold America First caucus in the Senate.”
A Masters supporter in the crowd, 56-year-old Kristin Zenk from Phoenix, said she worries Kelly isn’t going to be easy to defeat.
“Because people like him,” Zenk said. “He’s likable.”