Blake Masters won the Arizona GOP Senate primary by embracing Trump and the party's right fringe.
But he now faces an uphill battle against Mark Kelly for the seat once held by John McCain.
"John McCain, rest his soul," Masters once said. "It's not his Republican Party in Arizona anymore."
APACHE JUNCTION, Arizona — It was 20 minutes into the monthly meeting of the Superstition Mountain Republican Club, and Blake Masters was running late.
The host, a local constable named Ted Gremmel, had informed attendees in a large room at Avalon Elementary School on July 14 that the Republican Senate candidate was tied up with an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Masters, a towering, lanky figure, eventually walked in wearing a navy blue suit and what looked like a face full of TV makeup.
"Mark Kelly is the worst US senator. He's the single worst!" Masters began his pitch, skewering the Democratic senator whose seat he hopes to take. He went on to solicit the crowd's nominations for the title of "worst US Senator."
One attendee shouted out the name of Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the vice-chair of the January 6 committee.
"Liz Cheney's in the House, but she's pretty, pretty bad!" Masters replied, adding: "What about Bernie Sanders? Chuck Schumer? Chuck Schumer's got a heck of a face! He looks like an Ayn Rand villain, right? He just looks like an evil guy."
Masters eventually made the case that Kelly, the Democratic incumbent who won his seat in a special election in 2020, was the worst US senator because he "votes just as badly as Bernie Sanders," but is, according to Masters, pretending to be a moderate.
Endorsed by Trump, Masters won the GOP nomination for US Senate in Arizona last week.
Over the next three months, Masters will take on Kelly for the prize of a Senate seat held for 31 years by the late Sen. John McCain, a Republican with a record of bucking his party, championing bipartisan initiatives like campaign finance reform, and drawing the ire of Trump even after his death in 2018. And even as he rejects the mantle of McCain, Masters will have to woo middle-of-the-road voters in a state that's trending purple and has generally sent moderates to the Senate.
A 36-year-old first-time candidate, Masters has a history of violating political taboos, hopes to establish an "America First Caucus" in the Senate, and would represent a stark departure from a 2008 GOP presidential candidate who famously defended his opponent from Islamophobic attacks.
"John McCain, rest his soul," Masters said during a March interview with a New York radio station. "You know, it's not his Republican Party in Arizona anymore."
But observers warn that this political positioning could come back to bite Masters in the general election, when both independent voters and the Republicans he failed to win over during the primary are up for grabs.
"McCain absolutely does still have sway in Arizona," said Mike Noble, an Arizona pollster who leads OH Predictive Insights. "It's one of the contributing factors as to why Trump came up short in Arizona in the last presidential election."
From Trumpian Thiel protege to general-election 'independent'
After growing up in Tucson and getting a bachelor's and a law degree from Stanford, Masters spent the majority of his professional life working in Silicon Valley.
He is a close associate of conservative tech billionaire Peter Thiel, serving as the chief operating officer of Thiel's investment firm and the president of his foundation until March of this year. Masters was a student of Thiel's at one point, taking notes on the tech entrepreneur's lectures about building startups that would eventually become their co-authored book, Zero to One.
Thiel's idiosyncratic brand of politics — which have evolved from an escapist libertarian tendency toward a more populist, nationalist ideology — are now part and parcel with the "New Right," a reactionary political ideology that makes critiques of capitalism, social progressivism, and other aspects of modernity. As with JD Vance, the GOP Senate nominee in Ohio, Thiel has bankrolled Masters' bid, spending at least $15 million on a political action committee backing the candidate's campaign.
But while Masters has certainly gestured towards some of the economic aspects of New Right ideology, he's leaned harder into its socially conservative cultural prescriptions, which land much more comfortably with a Republican base in line with Trump, Fox News, and other influential right-wing figures.
During his appearance at the Republican club meeting in July, he launched into a speech rife with incendiary claims about the country's immigration system, pitching a symbolic impeachment of President Joe Biden over border policy while arguing that the Democratic Party is waging an assault on the nuclear family and American values. He also spent considerable time on education policy, leaning into familiar GOP complaints about critical race theory and the New York Times' 1619 Project on the history of slavery.
"I think what's worse than this crazy racial stuff, and this crazy fake history project, is this perverse gender ideology," he said. "The progressive left, they want to teach your 5-year-old, or your 5-year-old grandchild, that he or she can change their gender, encourage these kids to change their gender. I'm sorry, but I think that is child abuse."
Masters secured Trump's endorsement — and roughly 40% of the primary vote — by fully embracing the former president's false claims of a stolen 2020 election. Masters' attendance at a screening of the Dinesh D'Souza film "2000 Mules" at Mar-a-Lago in May reportedly gave him an edge as he and other Senate candidates sought to curry favor with Trump.
"The power of documentary — it's on video!" Masters exclaimed before the crowd in Apache Junction, urging them to watch the broadly-debunked film that makes several false claims about the 2020 election.
But Masters' intentional violation of liberal pieties and political taboos is what makes him Trumpian, and it's seemingly a consistent aspect of his personality. He's chided former GOP Sen. Martha McSally for allegedly avoiding criticizing Kelly's position on guns because Kelly's wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot and badly wounded by a gunman in Tucson in 2011.
"Mark Kelly is a gun-grabber, and we need to run a candidate who's bold enough to say, like, hey, I'm sorry about what happened to your wife," Masters said on the Charlie Kirk Show in June. "Like, it's truly horrible, like his family and Gabby Giffords, a real victim of a horrible gun crime, right?"
"That doesn't give you the right, though, to disarm Arizonans," he continued.
Spokespeople for both Kelly and Masters declined Insider's interview requests.
Masters has also described supporters of abortion rights as "demonic" and likened the practice to a "religious sacrifice" for progressives, suggested that the FBI instigated the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, described the country's political leadership as "psychopaths," tweeted out a clip of an interview in which he articulated the "great replacement" theory just hours after a mass shooter inspired by similar ideas opened fire at a Buffalo grocery store, and referred to Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the "affirmative action pick."
After the New York Times reported on Masters' years-old incendiary posts on a CrossFit forum, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii — one of 10 Jewish members of the body in which Masters hopes to serve — called Masters anti-Semitic.
But while taking controversial and unorthodox positions may play well among GOP voters, Masters still has to convince the rest of his purple state's electorate to support him.
"That'll get you the Republican nomination, but it's not going to win you a general election," said Chuck Coughlin, a long-time political consultant in Arizona who's worked primarily for Republicans. "So he's gonna have to choose on how to narrate the campaign, and I just don't see him moving. I don't see him moving away from that narrative line, I see him doubling down on it."
Ryan O'Daniel, an Arizona lobbyist and campaign consultant who managed McCain's final Senate campaign in 2016, offered a more optimistic view of Masters' chances, saying that the fundamentals of the national environment may matter more than anything else. But he also warned that the so-called "pivot" to the general election, in which candidates seek to moderate their image and appeal to a broader audience, might not be so easy for Masters.
"There's nowhere to hide because they've spent a year on the trail, they're all over YouTube, they're all over Twitter," he said. "There's much more of a record of things now than there used to be seven years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. So you almost can't pivot anymore."
But he's also continued to be combative. When Tucson Mayor Regina Romero announced a press conference highlighting several Masters' controversial statements, he responded with a press release calling her a "Low IQ Activist."
A 'young and dynamic' America First caucus?
When asked who he'd seek to emulate as a senator, Masters has repeatedly pointed to Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a man with a history of his own provocations.
"Josh Hawley is calling me saying, 'give me some backup!'" Masters told attendees in Apache Junction while condemning Big Tech. "He's the only one in the US Senate who really understands this stuff."
Masters talks up the idea of an "America First Caucus" made up of other "young and dynamic" senators including Hawley, Vance (if he wins his election), and curiously, Rand Paul. Perhaps intentionally on Masters' part, the proposed caucus shares the name of an ill-fated idea that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia was forced to abandon last year: a caucus that would have been organized in part around "uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions."
Asked about Masters' caucus idea at the Capitol in July, Hawley demurred.
"Well, I — listen, I would, first of all, I welcome more Republicans next Congress to the Senate," Hawley told Insider. "I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch."
But he offered praise for the first-time Senate candidate, who he endorsed earlier this year ahead of the primary election.
"I think Blake is thoughtful. I think that he is a tireless worker," said Hawley. "I think that he's really smart, and we agree on the — I think where he is on the issues, I really, you know, I agree with him on much of it, I'm sure not all, but, you know, much."
But Coughlin described Masters' politics as "dystopian" and drawing on people's sense of alienation from existing power structures. And he argued that having a more hardline, Hawley-esque senator from Arizona would be a "substantive break" from the state's history of electing moderates.
"I mean, if you really, truly understand Arizona's success as a state, you understand it as a cooperative relationship with the federal government," said Coughlin, pointing to both border security, water management issues, and military installations as key avenues where a more cooperative, compromising approach is needed. "So now, we're gonna send somebody to Washington, and all they want to do is take a sledgehammer to all those relationships? That's never been the case in the history of Arizona politics," he added.
O'Daniel, meanwhile, suggested that Masters' penchant for speaking openly about his beliefs — even if it means calling the Unabomber an "underrated thinker" in the midst of an electoral campaign — could actually appeal to voters.
"That's part of what made Trump successful in 2016," said O'Daniel. "You know exactly what you're gonna get."
'All he did was badmouth other people'
During the question-and-answer portion of Masters' address to the Superstition Mountain Republican Club in Arizona, a 79-year old woman named Charlene Lockwood rose to decry the back-and-forth "football game" of Washington. She challenged Masters on whether he had read the US Constitution while praising the work of legislators who work across the aisle.
"I am proud of Senator Sinema. I am proud of Senator Manchin," she said, citing the two Democrats' opposition to removing the Senate's 60-vote filibuster, which has proven a formidable obstacle to passing Biden's agenda.
Though Masters offered praise for Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's frequent spurning of her party — "give credit where it's due: we still have a country," he said — he largely avoided the substance of the question, seizing on a comment Lockwood had made about term limits for members of Congress to make his argument that "unelected bureaucrats" in Washington need term limits.
After the event, Lockwood told Insider she would "never even consider voting for Masters" after what she witnessed.
"All he did was badmouth other people," she said, later adding that Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska was her favorite senator. "I don't think Blake Masters even knows what the Constitution is really, just from the way he acted."
Seeking to capitalize on Masters' far-right politics, Kelly rolled out a list of Republican endorsements last month. And observers generally agree that Kelly's incumbency and fundraising prowess offer him a head-start in the race, despite a national environment likely to favor Republicans. "If one could give an award for best strategy and navigation of these incredibly turbulent political waters for Democrats, Mark Kelly should get a gold medal," said Noble.
"He's done a really, really great job of not really being in the fire, and kind of hitting the issues most important to Arizonans, and just staying planted squarely in the middle from a perception standpoint," Noble added. "Because his voting record is obviously very different."
And Democrats may have something of a wild-card opportunity in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, particularly after voters in conservative Kansas rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment earlier this month. To that end, Kelly's first attack ad against Masters highlights the Republican's comments on abortion.
On some level, the shape of the race will likely be determined by both the broader national environment and by Biden's approval ratings. In a statement to Insider, RNC Arizona spokesman Ben Petersen previewed the GOP's line of attack on Kelly, calling him a "lackey" for Biden while arguing that he "could be wielding a one-vote veto in the Senate right now."
But in many ways, Sinema has embraced the mantle of McCain more than Kelly, publicly taking positions that put her at odds with the Democratic base — most prominently on the Senate filibuster and a party-line spending bill that Democrats recently passed — while Kelly has largely voted with his party. As a result, Sinema's approval ratings are higher with Republicans than Democrats in Arizona.
"I'd be hugging the shit out of her right now," said Coughlin.
One prominent Mesa Republican, outgoing speaker of the Arizona House Rusty Bowers, told Insider he's "not a fan" of Masters, citing his "lack of self awareness" and "lack of sensitivity."
Bowers lost a state Senate primary to Trump-backed former Sen. David Farnsworth last week after testifying before the January 6 committee about Trump's efforts to overturn Arizona's election results.
Asked directly in July how he would vote in a Kelly vs. Masters general election, Bowers stopped short of declaring his support for Kelly, but heaped praise on the incumbent Democratic senator.
"It's probably best to say: I'm going to vote for somebody for Senate that has got character, has got history, has got experience, who's got maturity," said Bowers.
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