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Five Takeaways From the Arizona Senate Debate

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

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

The 2 men, who’ve spent months attacking one another 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 controversy did little to cover latest ground on essentially the most contentious issues, however the moderator asked pointed, direct questions in a bid to force the candidates to make clear their sometimes murky positions. Mr. Masters tried to straddle the road between his previous hard-line stances and his more recently adopted softer tone — but continued to largely play to his base, even when it required some winks and a nod or two.

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

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

Mr. Masters said he was proud to call himself one of the vital 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 point of fact, abortions late in pregnancy are rare and sometimes occur due to a devastating health problem in an otherwise wanted pregnancy.

With the primaries over, each parties are shifting their focus to the final election on Nov. 8.

Faced with a direct query about whether Mr. Masters believed the 2020 vote was stolen, he looked as if it would blink. He talked of collusion between tech firms, 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 number on the Arizona PBS station.

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

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

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

“I’m nervous about what’s going to occur here on 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 consider that inflation and the southern border are Republicans’ two strongest issues, and Mr. Masters hammered each early and sometimes. He painted a Dante-esque picture of the border — beset with cartels, overflowing with fentanyl and wide-open for thousands and thousands of “illegals” to comb through.

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

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

Mr. Kelly called the border “a large number” 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 within the Southwest, Mr. Masters continuously uses California as a type of foil, making the state a stand-in for liberalism gone wild. And one reliable option 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 an excessive amount of water from the Colorado River.

“I’m bored with Senator Kelly acting just like the third senator from California,” Mr. Masters said onstage Thursday, echoing a refrain he has made throughout the campaign. “We’d like 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 as an alternative depend 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 overwhelming majority of voters would have trouble naming Mr. Victor — he has struggled to boost money or capture media attention. But he held his ground Thursday night, insisting that the moderator allow him to reply all the identical questions as Mr. Kelly and Mr. Masters.

For essentially the most part, Mr. Victor took a predictable Libertarian pox-on-both-their-houses approach, and portrayed himself because the outsider who wouldn’t be beholden to either President Biden or Mr. Trump. And there could possibly be a receptive audience for that message: Roughly a 3rd of Arizona’s voters usually are not registered as Republicans or Democrats, and lots of view themselves as moderates or describe themselves as leaning libertarian.

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

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