For more than a year, Republicans viewed Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona as one of their biggest targets for this year’s midterms. Kelly narrowly won his seat in a special election two years ago with just 51% of the vote, the same year that Joe Biden clinched the state by roughly 10,000 votes. The signs point to Arizona as a swing state.
Yet when Blake Masters handily won the GOP primary this month to take on 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 of a Nazi war criminal.
While Masters is trailing Kelly in the polls, his campaign is clearly counting on one issue in particular—immigration—to revive his candidacy. Few Republicans are pushing the issue as hard as Masters going into November.
“Mark Kelly is personally responsible for the worst border crisis our state and our nation have ever seen,” Masters said in his Aug. 3 victory speech. “He has never once lifted a finger to stop it, has never once used his influence to make Biden end it, has never once to this day simply said: stop releasing illegal immigrants into this state.” On Twitter, he’s been equally pugnacious. “Imagine all the terrorists who snuck in but weren’t caught,” he posted. “Brought to you by Joe Biden and Mark Kelly.”
Arizona political insiders say that Masters is betting on an immigration outcry before the election to help him beat Kelly. Immigration often plays a prominent role during campaigns in border states like Arizona, particularly on the GOP side. But Masters’ focus on it is notable; he has elevated it far more than the issues animating other Republican candidates across the country, particularly the economy and inflation.
Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy captain, has been something of a thorn in Biden’s side on immigration. He pressed the administration for providing more resources to Arizona state officials to address the situation at the border, helped to secure $1 billion in additional funding to Customs and Border Protection, and publicly criticized the President for not releasing a border plan. Along with Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema, he excoriated Biden on his plan to end Title 42, a controversial Trump-era pandemic measure that lets border officials expel migrants without letting them apply for asylum.
In May, a federal judge blocked Biden from ending the program, in a ruling that is likely to drag the legal fight on for months, with the case possibly reaching the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Border Patrol agents are on pace to make two million arrests this year, which would be a national record. Department Homeland Security officials have said that many of those arrests are migrants who were expelled under Title 42 and then tried to cross the border again.
“It’s Arizona, anything is possible,” David Wells, a politics professor at Arizona State University, tells TIME. “But it’s hard for me to see a scenario where the voters of Arizona, especially the ones who will decide the race, somehow see Masters as a better choice than Kelly. So Masters is going to want to play up the border.”
It’s a playbook Republicans have used before. In 2018, many GOP candidates and leaders, including then-President Donald Trump, spread fears about a migrant caravan from Central America heading toward the U.S.-Mexico border. It didn’t work then; while the strategy motivated some Republican voters, Democrats still gained 41 House seats and took control of that chamber. But some political observers say that any changes to America’s border policy from now until November, including the courts potentially allowing for the end of Title 42, could be a boon to Masters.
“It’s just something that has to be factored in,” acknowledges Doug Jones, a former U.S. Senator from Alabama who is working to elect Democrats in the midterms. “I don’t think it would be determinative of the outcome of the election, but it will be important, no matter which way that goes.”
The Kelly campaign emphasized that the Senator’s track record of pushing for increased border protections will not be lost on Arizonans. “Since taking office, Sen. Kelly has worked with Republicans and Democrats to deliver technology, staffing, and resources to make the southern border more secure because Arizona deserves nothing less,” Sarah Guggenheimer, a campaign spokesperson, tells TIME. “Kelly has always put the interests of Arizonans first, even when that means standing up to his own party.”
Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in 2011 and suffered a serious brain injury, has skillfully walked a political tightrope of voting with Biden 94% of the time, while also distancing himself enough from the administration on some key issues. It’s a positioning that has endeared him to independents and even some moderate Republicans. The latest polling 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, tells TIME. “They don’t think he’s left wing. They don’t think he’s progressive. They think he’s fine.”
Masters clinched the GOP primary this month after garnering 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 outcome two years ago after Biden narrowly won the state. (Rusty Bowers, the Arizona House speaker who refused to go along with Trump’s scheme to reject the will of the voters, was booted out of office the same day Masters won.) Masters’ campaign was also buoyed by billionaire Peter Thiel, his former boss, who poured millions of dollars into the race.
Political operatives insist that Masters has a tougher fight than Kari Lake, another GOP firebrand running for statewide office in Arizona and backed by Trump. Lake, a former local news anchor, won the party’s nomination for governor, and is down by roughly three points against Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in the latest polling. “One of the things you hear from Arizona voters is how Kari Lake was on the news and that they grew up with her,” Longwell says. “Masters doesn’t have that. He doesn’t have that charisma. He’s got election denialism. He’s got money. He’s Trump’s endorsement. And he’s making it about immigration.”
Masters will also have to deal with baggage from his bigoted past statements. He’s blamed “Black people” for America’s gun violence problem and has promoted the “great replacement theory” that a cabal of elites is systematically replacing white people with ethnic minorities, accusing Democrats of trying to flood the nation with immigrants to “change the demographics of our country.” He once referred to a quotation from the infamous Nazi official Hermann Göring as “poignant.”
His nomination was a disappointment to Republicans who think he will alienate most of the electorate. On Monday, the Kelly campaign unveiled a coalition of more than 80 Arizona Republicans supporting him over Masters. “Mark Kelly is pretending to be a Republican now that Election Day is close,” Zachery Henry, the Masters’ campaign’s communications director, tells TIME, when asked about the GOP leaders who are backing his opponent.
Masters, Lake and other far-right candidates in Arizona won their primary races with more than 300,000 votes. But to win the general election, they will need a million and a half, says Steve May, a former GOP state legislator, who doesn’t believe doubling down on Trumpism and re-litigating an election from two years ago is the best strategy.
“Trump didn’t win Arizona last time in 2020,” May tells TIME. “We elected Sinema and Kelly. I don’t think that message has a broad enough appeal. Democrats are going to have to really screw some things up in order to lose.”
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