'It's time for something new': Blake Masters brings fire, more nuance to Arizona's Senate race

U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters paces in a room full of his family and campaign members as they watch the primary election votes roll in at Hilton Garden Inn in Chandler on Aug. 2, 2022.
Ronald J. Hansen
Arizona Republic

Blake Masters is a thinker whose views can land with the delicacy of a hammer on glass.

The newly minted Republican nominee in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race is eager to press his case against his opponent, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. But Masters, a 36-year-old conservative, also is attacking liberalism and others who stand for policies he sees as hurting America.

Masters is refining his campaign rhetoric and ready to test whether an expected Republican red wave in November can wash away Arizona’s recent purplish past.

In a 45-minute interview with The Arizona Republic, his most extensive since clinching the GOP nomination, Masters outlined his views on Social Security and abortion rights. He said what he would do to address gun violence and addressed his college-era libertarian writings that have some Republicans quietly anxious about the coming attacks on him.

It came as Masters expands his campaign team, welcomes the support of his former foes and hopes to win over more than Republicans.

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“I think in the general election the choice is: Do you think we’re going in the right direction? If someone looks around and says, ‘Hey, this border crisis, this inflation crisis, the sort of weak supply chains, skyrocketing crime. Yeah, sign me up.’ Well, they should probably vote for Mark Kelly because he has just helped (President) Joe Biden accomplish all of those things,” Masters said.

“They had the House. They had the Senate. They have had the White House. They’ve just failed, and it’s time for something new.”

Now Masters wants to make clearer what that means.

Where does Masters stand on Social Security?

Perhaps most importantly, he backtracked from his June 23 comment at a candidate forum when he said, “Maybe we should privatize Social Security. Private retirement accounts, get the government out of it.”

Last week, Masters described a desire to fortify Social Security while boosting private investing for future generations.

“I do not want to privatize Social Security,” he said. “I think, in context, I was talking about something very different. We can’t change the system. We can’t pull the rug out from seniors. I will never, ever support cutting Social Security. If anything, we actually should probably increase payments because they don’t go as far these days with Mark Kelly and Joe Biden’s crazy inflation.”

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Social Security is “there for a good reason and we have to find a way to pay for it so that it will always be there.”

When asked what kind of revenue adjustments could protect the program, Masters said he “would have to study that. What I’ll just reiterate here is my commitment to shoring up the system and making it work.”

For younger Americans, he said, the government should encourage parallel investing, perhaps by raising investment limits in programs such as Roth IRAs.

“The government should be very interested in incentivizing people to save. I know it’s hard to imagine savings here in the Joe Biden economy, where everything is just costing more and more almost week over week. But we want to be a culture of savers,” Masters said.

“We want people to invest. We want people to feel secure and thrive. And then you want well-tailored government programs, like Social Security, to serve as a backstop to make sure that no one falls through the cracks.”

In expounding on Social Security and investing, Masters is moving away from privatizing the program, an idea that failed to advance under President George W. Bush and was endorsed, but not pursued, by Paul Ryan in 2012, when he was Republican Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee.

Kelly’s campaign said in a written statement there was no room for Masters to reposition himself on the issues.

“Blake Masters’ long history of comments speaks for itself,” said Sarah Guggenheimer, a campaign spokeswoman. “He has dangerous beliefs and no post-primary flip flop can disguise the fact that Masters is a risk Arizonans can’t afford.”

Where does Masters stand on abortion rights?

If Masters was more detailed on Social Security, he seemed to break new ground in his stance on abortion rights, an issue that has new currency after the Supreme Court erased federal protections and now leaves to state-by-state regulation.

Masters, a Stanford-trained lawyer who said his top pick for Senate committees would be the Judiciary Committee, said he thinks a federal “personhood law” would help ban all third-trimester abortions. He said he views Arizona’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks — with exceptions for the life of the mother — is appropriate for his state.

“The federal government should prohibit late-term abortion, third-trimester abortion and partial-birth abortion,” he said. “Below that, states are going to make different decisions that are going to reflect the will of the people in those states, and I think that's reasonable. I think that’s what most people certainly in this state and nationwide are looking for.”

“I would look to Arizona’s (15-week) law and say I’m OK with it. I think it’s a reasonable solution, which reflects where the electorate is.”

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters speaks before former President Donald Trump takes the stage at Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley on July 22, 2022.

Discussing abortion rights based on trimesters, a key part of the Roe v. Wade case overturned by the Supreme Court, seems to add nuance to an issue where Masters has spoken in simpler language.

During a Republican primary campaign event in Carefree, Masters suggested constitutional grounds to block abortions without distinguishing by trimesters.

“I think the 14th Amendment says you have the right to life, liberty and property,” he said, according to the Huffington Post. “You can’t deprive someone with that without due process. Hard to imagine a bigger deprivation of due process than killing a small child before they have a chance to take their first breath. So I think you do need a federal personhood law.”

Masters said last week that he views such a personhood law as applying to third-trimester pregnancies, and said there are arguments for earlier time frames. In a February Twitter broadcast with conservative Andrew Jackson, Masters said an earlier period would have a greater effect.

“If we got a personhood amendment, even if it was at, you know, two months or three months, even if it was nowhere near what Texas chose to do — and I think Texas should have the right to do what they did — it would still save hundreds of thousands of lives a year, millions of lives over a multiyear span.”

Other personhood efforts have defined it as beginning at conception. That’s what then-Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., sought in a 2017 bill that failed in the Senate. The Wisconsin-based Personhood Alliance, says the “killing of an innocent human being through abortion, at any developmental stage and for any reason, is a direct violation of their personhood.”

“I'm interested in doing things that are good, that will work, and that reflect the will of Arizonans,” Masters said in acknowledging the vast differences among the public on abortion rights.

“I think people of good faith disagree,” Masters said. “I think it’s a difficult issue, especially early on. But it’s not so difficult once you have a fully formed, fully viable, obviously human being that can feel pain and whatnot. And nobody wants those babies to be killed except radical Democrat politicians and ideologues.

“And that’s why I’m so disappointed with Mark Kelly, because he pretends to be reasonable. He pretends to be moderate, but actually he joined every Senate Democrat except (Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.) in voting for unlimited abortion nationwide up until the moment of birth.”

That is a reference to Kelly’s vote for the failed Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have prevented states from criminalizing abortion and from banning abortions when the life of the mother is at risk, a determination made in conjunction with a doctor. PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, ruled a similar statement by Masters as “mostly false.”

Masters said he doesn’t believe states that restrict abortion have the right to prevent women from pursuing abortions in states that allow them, or punish the women afterward. “I don’t think you can get this patchwork of where a state is trying to punish somebody for conduct in another state,” he said.

Where does Masters stand on gun violence and the Second Amendment?

Gun rights are another issue area where Masters and Kelly split significantly.

Masters sees a gun violence problem in America, but he says Democrats, and especially Kelly, have trampled the Constitution in efforts that fail to address the biggest sources of the problem.

He earlier stirred controversy over a comment injecting race into a discussion of guns and crime in an April podcast.

“We do have a gun violence problem in this country and it’s gang violence, right? It’s gangs. It’s people in Chicago, St. Louis shooting each other,” he said. “Very often, you know, Black people, frankly. And the Democrats don’t want to do anything about that.”

Last week he continued to assail the left for its approach to guns and crime.

“I think the Democrats have given up,” he said. “Certainly a whole a whole lot of it is in Democrat-run cities where they basically don’t let police do their jobs. You know, in Baltimore, look at how many unsolved murders there are. A lot of times stuff isn’t even investigated, right? The police just they don’t go in. They’re not enabled by the city managers to even do their jobs, and so it descends into lawlessness.”

Masters criticized the federal law passed in June that creates new restrictions on gun sales for the young and provides new resources for mental health care. It was a rare and bipartisan reaction to the May 24 massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

Masters acknowledged “people are struggling” with mental health problems and more is needed on that issue. But the new gun restrictions won’t address key sources of gun violence: suicides and street crimes, he said.

The Pew Research Center noted that 2020 was the worst year on record for gun deaths in America. About 54% that year were suicides, or 24,000 in all. About 43%, or 19,000, were considered homicides.

There is no agreed-upon definition of mass shootings, but many have settled on an incident in which at least four people are shot.

By that standard, there were 513 fatalities and about 2,500 wounded in 2020, according to figures tracked by Gun Violence Archive. The numbers were higher in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the nation into extended quarantine.

Masters said he opposes red-flag laws that temporarily restrict access to firearms for those deemed a threat to themselves or others and he encourages more aggressive prosecution using existing laws and adding perhaps another 100,000 police officers.

“I think we can certainly start to get a lot of mileage out of just enforcing the laws on the books,” he said.

Gun violence in schools could be countered by those equipped to address such problems, he said.

“I would support armed resource officers at schools. I wish we didn’t live in a country where you had to have that. Apparently, we have to have that,” Masters said. “We should be protecting kids at least as well, if not better, obviously better, than sporting events and jewelry stores and everything else we defend in society by having armed and trained officers present.”

He supports allowing teachers to train to carry firearms in schools to protect students.

Kelly prominently has called for gun-control measures since the 2011 shooting near Tucson in which his wife, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was shot in the head. That attack left six dead and a dozen others wounded.

Masters acknowledged the tragedy, but said nothing can justify Kelly restricting access to firearms.

“Congresswoman Giffords almost lost her life that day, and of course many other people did. And that’s a horrible crime,” Masters said. “She’s an amazing survivor and she’s just an inspiration in that sense. I understand that he’s probably got some strong feelings on this issue. Wherever he got his view though, his view is the wrong view. He is a gun grabber. He just is.”

“My message is, ‘Hey, I’m sorry this horrible tragedy happened to your family. Truly. But that does not give you the right to take away Arizonans’ constitutional rights.”

Where does Masters stand on immigration?

One issue where Biden has encountered Democratic criticism, including from Kelly, is on border security and immigration as numbers of illegal crossings rise.

Kelly urged extending the emergency health rule known as Title 42 that allowed U.S. authorities to quickly halt most attempted entries because of the pandemic until the administration developed a thorough plan to manage what Kelly called a “crisis” at the border.

Former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Masters, invoked Title 42 early in the pandemic and many Republicans have pressed to continue what amounted to a tougher border policy from an administration they see as unwilling to secure the border.

Masters has made stepped-up border security a primary focus of his campaign. He sketched out what that means.

“The wall is crucial, but you know talk to any Border Patrol agent they’ll tell you, the wall is a great piece of technology. It is itself not a solution. We have to go so much further than that.

“I think we need to radically increase the size of Border Patrol so that as a force, we should at least triple it. Some folks I talk to said let’s five X it. We need more (customs and immigration) judges to more quickly process out claims.

“I want to use technology to help drive border crossings down to zero,” he said. That will mean using thermal-imaging cameras, drones and other equipment as “a kind of kitchen-sink approach.”

“I think you should hammer away at it until you get back to the correct amount of illegal immigration, which, of course, for federal law and Republicans, is zero.”

Masters wants international asylum laws to revert to what he said was their original purpose.

“You have to seek asylum in the first country you get to. But so many people are hurt not doing that. They’re forum shopping and just trying to pass through six countries to get to the United States. That’s not asylum; that’s just called abuse of our asylum system.”

Masters won Trump’s backing in part by baselessly suggesting the 2020 election was stolen.

Heading into Arizona’s primary, Kari Lake, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, suggested without evidence the primary had fraud as well. She maintained her victory owed to her supporters’ ability to overcome fraud.

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Asked on late Thursday, when ballots from Tuesday’s primary remained uncounted, whether he viewed the primary as marred with fraud, Masters said no.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that. I’m just dismayed at Maricopa County’s relative inability to count ballots quickly,” he said.

“We should demand, living in a First World country, no matter what the Democrats say, that we should count ballots quickly and efficiently and transparently. … What we’re seeing now is incompetent. It’s inexcusable, so maybe that’s what people mean. I haven’t seen evidence of fraud, but I’ve seen a lot of evidence of incompetence.”

'When I was 19, I was pretty sure that I had the whole world figured out. And it turned out, of course, I didn’t.'

For Republicans, perhaps the biggest concern about Masters is his personal background.

In a lengthy story last month, the liberal Mother Jones magazine noted essays Masters penned while at Stanford that displayed contempt for democracy — such people “support stealing certain kinds of goods and redistributing them as they see fit” — and dressed for a talent show in Native American war paint and rapped about “cultural insensitivity.”

The New York Times wrote last month that Masters in 2006 had “rehashed an elaborate conspiracy theory about the United States’ entry into World War I” that cited a prominent libertarian who vouched for “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a fabrication that advances anti-Semitic tropes.

More recently, the Times connected his rhetoric about Democrats and immigrants to the racist “Great Replacement theory” that is popular among white nationalists.

Masters wrote off his earlier political thoughts as serious efforts, but ultimately immature. After a period as a libertarian, he is back where he began: the Republican Party.

“I grew up a Republican. I was reading Milton Friedman and the Federalist Papers and Ayn Rand and all that stuff. And, late high school, college became more libertarian,” he said. “When I was 19, I was pretty sure that I had the whole world figured out. And it turned out, of course, I didn’t.

“Hey, it’s politics. Political opponents will surface things that I may have said or written when I was a teenager and try to pretend like that’s my adult view,” he continued.

“I really matured. I became an adult. You have a couple of kids, start paying taxes, that will kind of ground you.”

After winning the GOP nomination, Masters wasn’t looking backward. The next day he made changes to his campaign reflecting the need to scale up and bring on a more-seasoned team.

Daniel Bell, the chief deputy solicitor general in Florida and a personal friend of Masters’, took over as campaign manager. He moves into the role held by Amalia Halikias, who is now a senior adviser.

Zach Henry, the one-time spokesperson for the Arizona Republican Party under Chair Kelli Ward, now heads communications for Masters.

And Blake Harris, the former chief of staff and campaign adviser to Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, will serve as a general consultant.

Analyst: 'a risky type of candidate'

As Masters girds for the general election, analysts view the Kelly-Masters race as a toss-up.

Kelly is battling the traditional midterm inertia against the party in power, but also is tied to a party seen as overspending the nation into historic inflation.

History suggests Republicans are well-positioned to make gains, but Masters’ politics and his past may create doubt.

“I talked to a lot of Democrats that are feeling better about this race and a lot of Republicans that are more worried about it,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I think when you look at him as a candidate and things that are in his background — things he has said and has written — he’s a risky type of candidate.”

Taylor noted Masters’ first post-primary ad featured his wife, Catherine, citing worries about the nation’s trajectory and lauding her husband’s motives for running.

“He’s in it because he loves his country so much and he loves his state so much. He would make Arizona so proud,” Catherine Masters says in the ad over video of their young children holding a torn piece of cardboard with “Blake for Senate” scrawled on it.

“That is the type of ad you run when you need to soften your image,” Taylor said. “It’s a stark contrast really from some of the ads he ran as a primary candidate, when he’s talking in very dour language about threats to our country and he really was playing up his Trump endorsement.

“It felt like a hard pivot after the primary, but that’s something that’s not an easy pivot to make.”

Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with the nonpartisan Inside Elections in Washington, said Masters’ background and style is uncommon for an Arizona Senate race. Unlike candidates such as then-Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., or former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, Masters is new to politics and brings an untested style.

“Blake Masters is in a different category. He never held elected office before. He’s young. He comes out of not just the business world as you might traditionally think about it, but out of this kind of newer venture capital space, and he’s got this really close relationship with (his mentor and former employer billionaire) Peter Thiel. There are a lot of unknowns,” Rubashkin said.

“This is a guy who has taken a lot of out-there positions over the span of his relatively brief adult life thus far,” he continued. “I think they’re going to be brought up in the general election. … Someone who always kind of knew they wanted to run for Senate probably wouldn’t have said a lot of the things that he has said and written. Now he has to contend with that.”

Masters’ comments about privatizing Social Security could become a problem for him, he said.

“Arizona is a state with a large aging population, a large retiree population,” he said. “Policies like privatizing Social Security are not particularly popular among that demographic. And those comments weren’t made on a blog a decade ago. They were made during a forum in this race so they’re harder to distance himself from.”

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

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