The Mark Kelly vs. Blake Masters Senate race in Arizona now a toss-up, polls say

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly’s long-presumed advantage in his reelection campaign has dwindled to what some are increasingly seeing as akin to a coin toss.

On Thursday, election analysts for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and for Politico moved the race to a toss-up. Earlier in the week, a Democratic polling firm released a poll showing the race with Republican challenger Blake Masters tied.

After months without continued support, records filed Thursday confirmed that billionaire Peter Thiel recently stepped in with at least another $2.5 million to support Masters’ efforts.

Masters and the GOP more broadly are running with momentum, and it's raising worries for Democrats that one of the linchpins of their strategy to hold the Senate could be falling away.

Polling, including a poll conducted in late September for The Arizona Republic, had shown Kelly leading the race by upper single-digits. But multiple polls now have shown the race within the margin of polling error.

"Despite massive financial backing from the wealthy special interests who control him, Mark Kelly’s campaign is floundering. Because Arizonans know Mark Kelly is the one responsible for surging inflation, surging crime and surging gas prices. They also know that Mark Kelly is the single Senator most responsible for our open border disaster," Masters said in a written statement.

"This election is a referendum on border security and Mark Kelly’s betrayal of every Arizona family. A vote for Kelly is a vote for open borders. A vote for me is a vote for secure borders and safe communities. That’s what is at stake in this election," Masters continued.

Kelly’s campaign maintains that others are now seeing the tightened race they always expected.

“We have never taken this race for granted,” said Sarah Guggenheimer, a Kelly campaign spokesperson. “As Senator Kelly travels to every corner of Arizona to speak to voters and fire up volunteers, it’s never been more clear how much overwhelming enthusiasm there is to reelect Senator Kelly and keep him fighting for our state.”

Others are more subdued in their assessment.

Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist not involved in the Senate campaign, wasn’t surprised to see the new view of the race.

“A blowout win for Democrats in Arizona is winning by like 3 points,” he said. “There are more Republicans than there are Democrats, period. And there are very few people who switch allegiances based on who the candidates are.

“Republicans can win just by winning the turnout game. We have to win the turnout and the persuasion game,” Barr said. “Mark Kelly is doing everything right. He is running a near-flawless campaign, but there’s no latitude that allows him to get a blowout victory.”

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Nathan Gonzales, a D.C.-based nonpartisan campaign analyst and editor of Inside Elections, said the race has always been one of the most competitive in the country, in part because of Arizona being an “emerging swing state” with close presidential and Senate races in 2020.

“I think the narrative got ahead of the actual race, meaning the narrative that said Sen. Kelly had a significant lead, I think, was more of a mirage than reality," Gonzales said. "Even though Blake Masters can’t be called the perfect candidate, there was going to be a natural closing of the race based on the partisanship of the state.”

Inside Elections rates the race as “tilt Democratic.” Gonzales wasn't sure it's a pure toss-up, and believes Kelly still has a narrow advantage, but noted that rating could still change.

“Titling Democratic leaves plenty of space for the possibility of a Republican victory,” he said.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said it’s a common theme nationally that many Senate races are tightening. Races normally do that, plus it’s a Republican-leaning year so it makes sense that Democrats are "hard-pressed," he said. But being an incumbent certainly helps candidates, he said.

"In Kelly’s case, he’s only had two years of incumbency, but his title senator is his new first name," said Sabato, whose namesake Sabato’s Crystal Ball website analyzes and forecasts elections nationally. "And Masters is unusual in some ways, and I’ll leave it at that. I think it’s a competitive race."

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Constantin Querard, a Republican campaign consultant not involved in the Senate race, said the recent developments suggest a bigger problem for Democrats.

“It seems like everybody’s polling has gotten closer, so you’re not picking and choosing between our pollsters and their pollsters,” he said. “It seems like everybody has it as a relatively close race now.

“I think Masters making that race close is a very good sign for all the other Republicans on the statewide ballot because you would have to assume that Mark Kelly is the strongest Democrat running statewide. If that race ends up really, really close, what does that imply for all the other races?”

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the UVA's nonpartisan political analysis newsletter, still rates the race as leans Democratic, which it’s been since they shifted it from toss-up at the end of August.

"We still see Kelly as a favorite. But we have a week until the election, which doesn’t seem like long, but in politics it can be,” associate editor J. Miles Coleman said.

Coleman said they have seen some tightening, but are looking in part at how Kelly is expected to outspend Masters in the final stretch and that Masters hasn’t led in polls.

"I think if Masters pulls it out, it’s just going to be because the Republicans this year have that much of a national tide going in their favor," Coleman said.

The 100-member Senate is evenly divided between Republicans and senators who vote with Democrats. Kelly's race has long been viewed as a battleground for control of the chamber, but his financial dominance and public polling suggested he was well-positioned to win a full, six-year term.

Today, that is less clear. Masters made a strong showing during their debate earlier this month, and persistent generally bad economic news and the continued unpopularity of President Joe Biden have dragged on Democratic prospects.

Querard noted the Senate race isn’t moving because of late-breaking news.

In Georgia, for example, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker has been battling through repeated accounts from women claiming he supported their decision to have abortions to end pregnancies that involved him.

In Arizona, the tightening seems more due to “general attitudes about things is skewing more pro-Republican, pro-Masters as a result.”

Inflation remains problematic for consumers and has been especially pronounced in the Phoenix area. The efforts to tame that problem has led to rising interest rates, which is leading to a dramatic slowdown in real estate. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened foreign policy concerns.

“Either you want more of the same or you don’t,” Querard said. “Masters is benefiting from it in the face of a rather significant deficit, too.”

Sabato said he expects Republicans to take over the House, but sees the makeup of the Senate as still up in the air.

"Some days I get all this positive information about Democrats pulling it out, and then the next day I get all this positive information about Republicans surging," he said. "You can’t be in all these places — it’s hard to know. You try and read local coverage. … You get a flavor of what’s going on, but that doesn’t tell you who’s going to win or lose.”

Kelly leads in fundraising over Masters

That’s a reference to the cash deficit Masters has always had against Kelly.

Kelly has raised more than $80 million and had $7.3 million in cash as of last week. Masters has raised about $11 million overall and loaned his campaign another $1 million. As of last week, his campaign had $2.6 million.

Gonzales of Inside Elections said the Arizona Senate race will test whether there’s a limit to how far money can go in fending off "a political wave.”

“If Sen. Kelly loses, it’s not because he didn’t have enough money,” he said. “Arizona is a live experiment as to whether money can fix all political challenges or not.”

Outside groups have helped bring some balance to the race for Masters.

The Club for Growth’s affiliated PAC, for example, is spending $5.6 million in ads on TV, cable and Spanish-language media, according to Medium Buying, which tracks political spending.

Make America Great Again Inc., which is aligned with former President Donald Trump, has spent about $2.7 million to help Masters’ efforts. Trump himself appeared in Mesa earlier this month and could make another visit to Arizona before the election.

Republican-aligned committees have helped Masters with about $39 million in supportive spending, though none of it is from the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Democratic-aligned PACs have boosted Kelly’s efforts with about $45 million in supportive spending.

Democrats in Arizona may have come to expect success after Kyrsten Sinema in 2018 became the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race in the state in 30 years, then saw Kelly win in 2020, along with Biden’s narrow victory in the state in the presidential election.

Barr said the trend toward Democrats is happening, but it is far from complete.

“No matter how bad their candidate is and no matter how good ours is, it’s always going to be close,” he said. “There are demographic changes happening, but they’re not happening at the rate at which Democrats want to believe they have already happened.”

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4493. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mark Kelly vs. Blake Masters: Polls show Senate race a toss-up