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Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Republican candidate Blake Masters offered viewers on Thursday night perhaps the only opportunity this fall to see both candidates side-by-side as they squared off in a televised debate hosted by Arizona PBS.
Kelly emphasized his ability to work across the aisle with Republicans while also standing up to members of his own party. Meanwhile, Masters tried to position himself as a pragmatist on issues like border security while also invoking the culture wars and suggesting news outlets and Big Tech could have impacted how people voted in the last election.
The debate comes roughly a month out from the November midterms, and while polling shows Masters trailing Kelly, a recent CBS News-YouGov poll suggests that gap could be closing.
Here are five key takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate.
Masters goes on the offensive
A pugnacious Masters largely stayed disciplined during the debate, avoiding any major gaffes and often successfully putting Kelly on the defensive, at times going so far as to ask the senator questions himself before the moderator stepped in.
Among the issues the Republican seized on was the border, asking why Kelly voted against an amendment introduced for the Inflation Reduction Act that would have required another 18,000 Border Patrol agents to be hired before additional IRS staff got hired.
The attacks sometimes appeared to put Kelly on the back foot.
“There are votes that happen in D.C. that have nothing to do with Border Patrol agents — that might have the title on it and nothing happens,” Kelly argued at one point before listing how he’s worked to achieve more staffing for Border Patrol.
Masters also hit Kelly repeatedly on the issue of abortion, claiming the senator supported no limits to the procedure and was an “abortion radical.” The Democrat, for his part, pushed back against the attacks and accused Masters of supporting a total abortion ban, which the Republican denied.
Kelly positions himself as no-nonsense moderate
The senator sought to show he could work across the aisle with Republicans in addition to members of his own party, while also arguing that he was willing to stand up to Democrats too.
“Families are struggling and often can’t afford gas or prescription medication, so I worked with Republicans to bring manufacturing back to America to cut costs. And when Democrats are wrong, like on the border, I call them out on it because I’m always going to stick up for Arizona,” Kelly said.
The Democrat even went as far to say that he wasn’t afraid to be at odds with President Biden.
“I’ve been strong on border security, and I’ve stood up to Democrats when they’re wrong on this issue, including, by the way, including the president. You know, when the president decided he was going to do something dumb on this and change the rules that would create a bigger crisis, I told him he was wrong,” Kelly said.
Biden becomes central point of attack
Masters frequently sought to tie Kelly to Biden, including on issues like immigration, spending and inflation, as the president suffers lagging approval numbers.
“The greatest threat to seniors’ retirement today is the massive, crushing inflation that Joe Biden and Mark Kelly caused, and it’s their fault. They caused it,” Masters said during the debate at one point.
“Joe Biden’s policies caused this and those are policies that Mark Kelly in Washington has supported every single time,” he added.
Meanwhile, Masters gave a nod of approval to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for voting as moderates, suggesting they were two Democrats he’d be willing to work with in the Senate.
Masters painted as extreme
Kelly took multiple opportunities to portray his Republican opponent as an extremist, digging into his past controversial statements on abortion, Social Security, his views about the 2020 election and the military.
“I find it interesting that my opponent Blake Masters is standing up for veterans here for a second because, you know, what I’ve heard during the last year or so is just insulting to veterans,” the senator said, before referencing Masters’s comments calling the military “totally incompetent” and saying there was “rot.”
He also slammed Masters for his previous support of privatizing Social Security.
“He wants to privatize our water. He wants to send our water rights to Wall Street. He wants to send your Social Security savings to Wall Street,” Kelly claimed.
Specter of 2020 hangs over debate
The 2020 election became another flashpoint of the debate, as Masters was pressed on his stance about whether it was rigged or stolen and if Biden was the legitimately elected president.
After some initial prodding, Masters acknowledged that Biden was the legitimate president and had been duly sworn in and certified — despite having echoed in the past former President Trump’s claims that the last election was stolen. However, he also suggested that the media and Big Tech had censored information ahead of the election that could have affected how people voted.
The discussion came as Arizona continues to play a central role in the ongoing scrutiny over the 2020 election. The state witnessed multiple election audits after Trump claimed he had won there instead of Biden, though officials and even a third-party firm have upheld the results of the last election, failing to find any major voter fraud.
Meanwhile, candidates in other races there — including GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and GOP secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem — have come under fire for casting doubt on the 2020 election results. Their past remarks have prompted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) to urge voters in Arizona to reject both candidates in November.