Mark Kelly takes fire from Blake Masters, slugs back in heated Senate debate

In their only scheduled face-to-face debate, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters repeatedly attacked Sen. Mark Kelly as an accomplice to a spending spree by President Joe Biden and an unchecked invasion by illegal immigrants.

Kelly, D-Ariz., pushed back by saying that he supported Biden when it was appropriate, condemned the administration’s border strategy, and, unlike Masters, stands firm for Arizona priorities, such as preserving Social Security. 

Masters struck an aggressive tone early and often in the debate on Thursday, calling Kelly an “abortion radical” and said Kelly and Biden “laid out the welcome mat” for illegal immigrants. 

Kelly bristled at Masters, telling him to calm down at one point and accusing him of changing restrictions on abortion rights he would support as needed to try to win the election.

What we learned: 4 takeaways from Kelly-Masters Senate debate

Both men clashed throughout the hourlong debate on Arizona PBS in Phoenix on the economy, abortion and the border with Mexico, with Masters frequently tying Kelly to Biden.

“For the past two years under Joe Biden and Mark Kelly, we’ve been going in the wrong direction,” Masters said during his closing remarks. “Everybody knows it. You are less safe today. Your bills have gone way up since Mark Kelly took over.

“You deserve so much better than what we have. Mark Kelly disagrees, otherwise he wouldn’t have spent two years backing Biden every time. Send me to the U.S. Senate if you think that you and your family deserve better, so that we can go in the right direction.”

For his part, Kelly accused Masters of bringing angry, arch-conservative politics that are offensive to women, seniors and veterans.

“I think we all know guys like this. Guys that think they know better than everyone about everything,” Kelly said sternly. 

“You think you know better than women and doctors about abortion. You even think you know better than seniors about Social Security. You think you know better than veterans about how to win a war. Folks, we all know guys like this, and we can’t be letting them make decisions about us because it’s just dangerous.”

Libertarian candidate Marc Victor glibly blamed both parties for the nation’s problems but largely provided only brief interludes between the heated volleys between Kelly and Masters.

Masters entered the evening debate trailing in the polls and well behind Kelly in campaign cash after he won the GOP nomination in August. Political observers said Masters needed a stellar showing to help reverse the race’s trajectory.

What played out was a confident Masters going on the attack.

Arizona politics: New Republic poll projects who’s ahead in Kelly-Masters Senate race

From the opening moments of the debate, Masters made clear he sees Biden taking the nation down the wrong track, and empowered by Kelly.

“Mark Kelly backed him up every single time,” Masters said. It was a line of attack intended to play up Biden’s poor standing with most Arizonans and erase Kelly’s effort to cast himself as an independent thinker in a divided Washington.

Kelly castigated Masters as “dangerous” for seniors and played up remarks Masters made at a Republican candidate forum in June in which he suggested, “Maybe we should privatize Social Security. Private retirement accounts, get the government out of it.”

The nationally watched race is one of the few that will determine control of the Senate, which is evenly divided between Republicans and senators voting with Democrats. Polling suggests Kelly has more appeal to independent voters, a bloc that is expected to settle the race and a segment Masters needs to do better with to win.

As the debate moved to abortion, Masters’ preference for state-level restrictions stood in sharp contrast to Kelly’s call for federally guaranteed abortion rights. The subject brought about the most intense personal attacks of the debate.

“Arizona women have totally lost the right to make a decision about abortion. It’s devastating, it’s wrong, and it’s exactly what my opponent Blake Masters wants,” Kelly said. 

“Blake Masters has called abortion demonic, a religious sacrifice, he’s even said that he wants to punish the doctors. He wants a national abortion ban that’s so strict that even in the case when a women is raped, she will not have the option to make this decision.”

Masters said it was Kelly who is the extremist on the issue.

“I’m pro-life and that means I believe in limits. Now I support exceptions because I don’t believe in being extreme on this issue. Sen. Mark Kelly is the abortion radical,” Masters said, noting his support for Arizona’s ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Elections: Inflation, abortion and threats to democracy on voters’ minds

“I believe in limits. Mark Kelly believes in no limits at all. … I’m going to represent the vast majority of Arizonans on this issue.”

Arizona’s abortion laws are clouded at the moment by an existing Civil War-era law that bans nearly all abortions and is viewed as the state’s controlling statute, not the 15-week ban passed by the Legislature earlier this year. 

All three candidates agreed the southern border is overly porous. Masters blamed that on Kelly.

“He voted against hiring 18,000 more Border Patrol agents and then said yes to 87,000 new IRS agents,” Masters said. “I just want to ask one question: Have you done everything in your power to secure the southern border?”

Kelly said he helped secure $1 billion in additional funding for securing the border and said Masters’ approach to government would only worsen efforts to achieve solutions.

“The only way you can do this is through bipartisanship, and it’s working together, working across the aisle to get things done like (the late veteran Sen.) John McCain did,” Kelly said. “My opponent Blake Masters, he doesn’t want to work with anybody. He doesn’t even want to work with Republicans. He calls Democrats psychopaths and that they’re evil. That’s not been the spirit of how Arizona senators work to the benefit of our state.” 

Early on, Masters hit Kelly over the economy, saying the senator “has messed everything up.”

“Our border is in chaos, we’ve got drugs and illegal aliens just pouring in, crime is up, the cost of groceries. Actually, the cost of everything you need to live keeps going up and up," Masters said.

"It wasn’t like this two years ago. What changed? Joe Biden took over, and in Washington, Mark Kelly backs Joe Biden every single time, without thinking twice, without thinking of Arizona.”

On a night when Masters was mostly on the attack, he conceded he had not seen evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. 

Kelly said the election was certified by Democrats and Republicans and that he sides with Gov. Doug Ducey that Arizona does elections well, including with voting by mail.

“These are conspiracies and lies that have no place in our democracy. You know, I’m worried about what’s going to happen here this election and 2024, we could wind up in a situation where the wheels come off of our democracy, and it’s because of folks like Blake Masters that are questioning the integrity of an election.”

Victor battled for attention throughout. He ripped both parties, saying they had both piled onto the nation’s debt, and failed to allow people the freedom to live their lives as they want.

“Live and let live, that’s my position on every issue. Live your life however you choose, just let other people do the same thing,” he said in his opening statement, saying both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for debt, inflation, unnecessary wars and tribalism.

“One of them kisses Biden’s ring, the other kisses Trump’s ring. I don’t kiss anybody’s ring.”

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

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