The Republicans running to turn back Democratic gains in Arizona and flip a critical Senate seat next year will have to fight through a protracted, expensive primary first.
The race to face Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has swelled with new Republican entrants in recent weeks — with the latest, Peter Thiel associate Blake Masters, officially launching his campaign Monday.
Masters, a 34-year-old executive for the billionaire tech investor's firm, is backed by a $10 million super PAC investment from Thiel, and he is one of three first-time candidates in a Republican primary that also includes state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who has twice been elected statewide, as well as businessman Jim Lamon and retired Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire.
Arizona’s Republican Party has been riven by deep divisions for more than a decade, and Democrats have capitalized on that by winning key statewide races with less than 50 percent of the vote in the past two elections. Now, the crowded, cash-flush Senate primary all but assures that Republicans will be fighting over who their nominee will be for more than a year, while Kelly, who narrowly won in 2020, rakes in cash and consolidates his position.
In an interview, Masters hit out at Kelly and the Democratic Party — but in a way that would also serve as a swipe at any elected official regardless of party, in a possible preview of the GOP primary fight to come as the candidates all try to show outsider credentials.
“We’ve got a leadership class, especially this current crop of Democrats in charge, that have totally failed,” Masters said.
“I’ve seen a lot in politics, I’ve worked a lot in politics, I just haven’t been corrupted like so many officeholders are,” he added, touting his experience running a PAC in the state in 2020 and as chief operating officer of Thiel Capital and president of the Thiel Foundation.
Masters is the second close Thiel ally to launch a Senate bid recently, alongside J.D. Vance, who is running in Ohio and also has the backing of a super PAC funded by Thiel.
The race has been slower to develop than some of the GOP primaries in open Republican seats, and some Republicans were worried early on about a lack of serious contenders. Lamon became the first candidate in May. Brnovich and McGuire joined the race in June, and Masters rounded out the field so far this week.
“Republicans have some quality candidates now to choose from. I don't think that was always the case, or at least there was a fear that would not be the case,” said Kirk Adams, a former chief of staff to GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. Adams said Brnovich was the early frontrunner because of his experience winning statewide, but he added that any of the Republican candidates could emerge from the primary.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Senate Republicans' campaign arm, downplayed the intra party fight and said “whoever comes out of the Republican primary in Arizona will beat Mark Kelly,” calling him a yes vote for the Democratic agenda.
One Arizona Republican tracking the race said of the primary field: “At this point, I would say they've all got a lot to prove. They've got to earn their spot.”
The second-quarter campaign finance reporting deadline Thursday will provide an early look at the candidates' fundraising, including whether any of them are investing personal funds in their campaigns. A fuller picture won’t emerge until October. But in the meantime Republicans acknowledge Kelly will have massive sums to fund his campaign. His fundraising apparatus never hit pause after winning a special election last November, and Kelly raised $6 million in the second quarter of this year and has $7 million cash on hand.
Part of the primary challenge for the Republicans will be proving they can keep pace with the Democratic incumbent, who is already facing GOP ads chipping away at him early.
“Mark Kelly set a new bar,” Adams said, highlighting the need for the Republicans to prove their financial chops. “They're all very expensive races and you have to have the ability to message to those voters and that takes money.”
In the interview, Masters said he plans to focus on “law and order, securing the border and supporting police” and the economic recovery, focused on middle-class workers. He also criticized large tech companies and highlighted GOP culture war issues like opposition to critical race theory, which has been increasingly central to GOP candidates as an issue that revs up their political base. He highlighted those same issues in a video officially launching his campaign.
In the interview, Masters pushed back against the question of whether his criticism of tech companies in Silicon Valley is hypocritical given his close association with and support from Thiel, which is likely to be an issue raised by his opponents in the campaign.
“I don’t think it’s hypocritical at all. I actually know how this stuff works,” Masters said. “Most people who blather about big tech have no idea.”
Other GOP candidates have worked to establish their lanes in the early stages of the race. Brnovich has been a frequent guest on Fox News, and he has his touted role in the recent Supreme Court voting rights decision.
“Mark Brnovich has been at the front lines of the fights that matter for Arizonans,” said Joanna Duka, a spokesperson for his campaign.
Lamon, the first to enter the race, kicked off the campaign by touting his record founding a solar engineering and construction company in the state. Stephen Puetz, an adviser to Lamon, said it’s “hard to beat someone who's the grassroots conservative candidate, is well funded and is the only proven job creator who built his own company from the ground up.”
McGuire, who is also running his first campaign, launched three weeks ago and was recently the head of the Arizona National Guard. His campaign said he's seen donor and on-the-ground momentum already.
“Voters are sending a clear signal that they want someone with proven leadership,” Courtney Konderik, his campaign manager, said in a statement. “They realize it will take a general to beat the astronaut in this race.”
Like in other GOP Senate primaries, former President Donald Trump looms, and he will be at a rally in the state later this month. Masters said he had not yet met or spoken with Trump about his campaign, but he said he would welcome the former president’s support if he were to endorse in the race. Trump has not weighed in on the primary except to criticize Ducey and Brnovich prior to the attorney general’s campaign launch.
Masters called the 2020 election “messy” and did not say if he believed the election was legitimate. Trump has repeatedly claimed the election was fraudulent, despite a lack of evidence, and many Republican Senate candidates have also questioned or attempted to undermine the election results.
“I think the election was a mess, and I don’t know for sure what happened. I know the result: Joe Biden was sworn in as president,” Masters said. He said he supported the controversial audit of results in Maricopa County, though he said he has not tracked it closely. Many Republicans and Democrats have spoken out against the audit, criticizing how it's been conducted and calling it a sham process.
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