By JONATHAN J. COOPER
PHOENIX (AP) — Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters tried to put Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly on defense Thursday, tying the incumbent to President Joe Biden and saying the party had done nothing to secure the southern border.
In their first and only scheduled debate, Masters sought to pierce Kelly’s image as an independent moderate willing to work across the aisle — part of an effort to reset a race in which polls show Kelly with a small lead.
“Two years ago Mark Kelly stood right there and he promised to be independent,” Masters said in his opening statement, calling Kelly a reliable vote for Biden’s agenda. “But he broke that promise.”
Kelly countered that he’s stood up to his party when necessary, particularly on border security, pointing to his opposition to Biden’s plans to end a pandemic-era program that allows for the speedy removal of immigrants in the name of public health.
“When the president decided he’s going to do something dumb on this and change the rules and create a bigger crisis, I told him he was wrong,” Kelly said.
He portrayed Masters as an extremist, repeatedly hammering Masters’ call during the GOP primary to “cut the knot” and “privatize Social Security,” a plan that Kelly said would “send your savings to Wall Street.”
For Masters, the debate was a chance to counter that narrative and go on the offensive against Kelly, whose popularity with independents helped him win two years ago in a state long dominated by Republicans.
Masters, an ally and protégé of billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, endeared himself to many GOP primary voters with his penchant for provocation and contrarian thinking. But since then, he has struggled to redefine his image for the more moderate swing voters he will need to win in November.
During the primary, Masters called for privatizing Social Security, took a hardline stance against abortion and promoted a racist theory popular with white nationalists that Democrats are seeking to use immigration to replace white people in America. Donald Trump endorsed Masters two months before the primary, citing Masters’ strident support of the former president’s lies about a stolen 2020 election.
Masters later scrubbed some controversial positions from his website. He now says he wants to protect Social Security for older and middle-aged workers while creating a private investment option for younger workers. He also says federal law should ban abortion later in pregnancy and allow states to go further. He has not disavowed his comments on the 2020 election but now talks about ensuring the integrity of future elections.
The Arizona race is one of a handful of contests that Republicans targeted in their bid to take control of what is now a 50-50 Senate, though they have curtailed spending since Masters emerged from the bruising primary.
Thiel, who employed Masters for most of his adult life and bankrolled the candidate’s primary campaign, has not opened his wallet for the general election, though he has held fundraisers. A super political action committee controlled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has pared back its own spending commitments.
That has left Democrats an opening to define Masters on their terms.
Masters met Thiel when Masters took a class that the billionaire taught at Stanford University. They wrote a book together, Thiel hired him and Masters eventually rose to senior positions in Thiel’s foundation and his investment firm.
Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy pilot, was elected in 2020 to finish the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term and is now running for a full six-year term. Kelly has worked to build a reputation as a moderate willing to work with Republicans.
The debate comes less than a week before early and mail voting begins, the methods chosen by at least 80% of voters in recent elections.
Kelly’s campaign has largely focused on his support for abortion rights, protecting Social Security, lowering drug prices and ensuring a stable water supply in the midst of a drought, which has curtailed Arizona’s cut of Colorado River water.
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