Tue. Dec 6th, 2022

PHOENIX — It was a battle over whether Arizona is still the conservative-leaning state of Barry Goldwater and John McCain.

Senator Mark Kelly faced his Republican challenger, Blake Masters, on Thursday in the first and only debate of the race that will help decide whether Democrats maintain control of the Senate, which they hold by the barest of margins. Mr. Kelly repeatedly emphasized his independent image, referring frequently to his disagreements with members of his own party, including President Biden.

The two men, who have spent months attacking each other on issues including abortion, border security, inflation and election integrity, were also joined by Marc Victor, the Libertarian candidate, who has not reached double digits in polls.

The debate did little to cover new ground on the most contentious issues, but the moderator asked pointed, direct questions in a bid to force the candidates to clarify their sometimes murky positions. Mr. Masters tried to straddle the line between his previous hard-line stances and his more recently adopted softer tone — but continued to largely play to his base, even if it required some winks and a nod or two.

Abortion has vaulted to the front of many voters’ minds in Arizona, not just after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this June, but because a state judge revived a total ban on abortions from 1864 that had sat dormant for decades. Abortions in the state, already on shaky ground, halted abruptly.

So on Thursday, each candidate tried to paint the other as an abortion extremist. Mr. Kelly pointed to statements where Mr. Masters had called abortion “demonic,” and said Mr. Masters wanted to punish doctors and ban abortions in cases of rape.

Mr. Masters said he was proud to call himself one of the most pro-life candidates running for Senate, and quickly leveled a misleading accusation that Mr. Kelly supported late-term abortions up until the moment of birth. In reality, abortions late in pregnancy are rare and often occur because of a devastating health problem in an otherwise wanted pregnancy.

Faced with a direct question about whether Mr. Masters believed the 2020 vote was stolen, he seemed to blink. He talked of collusion between tech companies, the news media and F.B.I. to suppress negative news about President Biden’s son Hunter.

“But not vote-counting, not election results?” asked the moderator, Ted Simons, a host on the Arizona PBS station.

“Yeah, I haven’t seen evidence of that,” Mr. Masters replied.

During the Republican primary, Mr. Masters won an endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump and earned legions of conservative followers by fanning the falsehoods that the 2020 election was stolen and Mr. Trump was its rightful winner.

But some of that language has been scrubbed from his campaign website since Mr. Masters entered the general election, where such conspiracy theories don’t play as well with independent voters, who either trust Arizona’s popular mail-in voting systems or simply want to move on.

Mr. Kelly said Mr. Masters’s peddling of “conspiracy theories” was undermining American democracy.

“I’m worried about what’s going to happen here in this election and 2024,” he said. “We could wind up in a situation where the wheels come off of our democracy.”

Political veterans in Arizona believe that inflation and the southern border are Republicans’ two strongest issues, and Mr. Masters hammered both early and often. He painted a Dante-esque picture of the border — beset with cartels, overflowing with fentanyl and wide-open for millions of “illegals” to sweep through.

“Joe Biden and Mark Kelly, they laid out the welcome mat,” Mr. Masters said. “They surrendered our southern border. They’ve given it up to the Mexican drug cartels.”

Crossings at the southern border have surged to their highest levels in decades as migrants flee gangs and political and economic turmoil in Venezuela, Central America and elsewhere. Many of those migrants are turning themselves directly over to American authorities to plead their cases in immigration courts.

Mr. Kelly called the border “a mess” of chaos and crisis, but said he had worked to get money for more Border Patrol agents and technology to screen for drugs at ports of entry.

Like other Republicans in the Southwest, Mr. Masters frequently uses California as a kind of foil, making the state a stand-in for liberalism gone wild. And one reliable way to rile residents in other parts of the West? Bring up the notion that the nation’s most populous state — which is in a near constant drought — is taking too much water from the Colorado River.

“I’m tired of Senator Kelly acting like the third senator from California,” Mr. Masters said onstage Thursday, echoing a refrain he has made throughout the campaign. “We need someone in there with sharp elbows who’s going to fight for our water.”

“Why is California even putting its straw into the Colorado River?” he added, arguing that the state should instead rely on desalination and the Pacific Ocean.

Left unsaid was the more basic implied attack: Mr. Masters is the protector of the state; Mr. Kelly is merely a liberal in disguise.

The vast majority of voters would have trouble naming Mr. Victor — he has struggled to raise money or capture media attention. But he held his ground Thursday night, insisting that the moderator allow him to answer all the same questions as Mr. Kelly and Mr. Masters.

For the most part, Mr. Victor took a predictable Libertarian pox-on-both-their-houses approach, and portrayed himself as the outsider who would not be beholden to either President Biden or Mr. Trump. And there could be a receptive audience for that message: Roughly a third of Arizona’s voters are not registered as Republicans or Democrats, and many view themselves as moderates or describe themselves as leaning libertarian.

Mr. Victor could easily attract enough voters to act as a kind of spoiler for Mr. Masters, denying him just enough votes to push Mr. Kelly over the edge. Indeed, at several points during the debate, Mr. Victor attacked Mr. Masters for waffling on his stances and leaped to the defense of Mr. Kelly.

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