By Maeve Reston, CNN
While trying to distance himself from his own party, Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly warned during an hour-long debate on Thursday that the “wheels” could “come off our democracy” if candidates like his GOP opponent, Trump-backed Blake Masters, are elected in November.
But Masters aggressively pushed back on those attacks, portraying Kelly, who’s running for a full six-year term, as a rubber stamp for the Biden administration, while refusing to acknowledge that he has attempted to moderate his positions on abortion and the 2020 presidential election.
The Arizona Senate race is among the most competitive in the country, and with the chamber currently split 50-50, every race matters. But Kelly appears to have strengthened his position over the past two months as Masters has struggled to keep up with the Democrat’s fundraising prowess. A new CNN poll released Thursday found that 51% of likely voters are behind Kelly, with 45% backing Masters.
Masters — a venture capitalist and political novice who won the primary in large part because of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement and the financial backing of billionaire Peter Thiel (his former boss) — released a campaign video last year proclaiming that he believed Trump won the 2020 election. But after the primary, he removed language from his website that included the false claim that the election was stolen.
Masters attempted to maneuver around questions about the election during Thursday’s debate — just days before Trump, whose 2020 loss in Arizona set off a cascade of election denialism in the state, heads there to campaign for Masters and other Republicans.
When the moderator asked him whether President Joe Biden, who narrowly carried Arizona, is the “legitimately elected President of the United States,” Masters replied: “Joe Biden is absolutely the President. I mean, my gosh, have you seen the gas prices lately?”
“Legitimately elected?” the moderator interjected.
“I’m not trying to trick you,” Masters said. “He’s duly sworn and certified. He’s the legitimate president. He’s in the White House and unfortunately for all of us.”
When the moderator followed up by using Trump’s language, asking whether the election was “stolen” or “rigged in any way” through vote counting or election results, Masters replied: “Yeah, I haven’t seen evidence of that.”
But Kelly argued that Masters has espoused “conspiracies and lies that have no place in our democracy.”
“I’m worried about what’s going to happen here,” Kelly said. “This election in 2024. I mean, we could wind up in a situation where the wheels come off of our democracy, and it’s because of folks like like Blake Masters that are questioning the integrity of an election.”
Masters insisted that he does not want to get rid of mail-in voting as Kelly alleged. He said he believed military service members should be able to mail ballots back from overseas and said he’d be fine with other voters sending their ballots back by mail if they included a copy of their driver’s license.
Kelly calls out his party on immigration and the border
Masters and Kelly repeatedly clashed over immigration, with Masters claiming Kelly supports “open borders” and Kelly rejecting those attacks as he insisted that he’s brought more resources to Arizona to deal with that issue.
When asked whether he had done enough to address immigration concerns, Kelly distanced himself from national Democrats.
“When I got to Washington, DC, one of the first things I realized was that Democrats don’t understand this issue. And Republicans just want to talk about it, complain about it, but actually not do anything about it. They just want to politicize that. We heard this tonight from my opponent Blake Masters.”
Masters charged that Biden and Kelly have put out “the welcome mat” to migrants. “We treat these people better than we treat our own US military service members. I find that shameful.”
Kelly said he’s pushed back on the Biden administration multiple times on immigration issues, including when the administration planned to end Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that allowed border patrol agents to send migrants back to their home countries.
“I’ve stood up to Democrats when they’re wrong on this issue … including the President.”
“When the President decided he was going to do something dumb on this, and change the rules,” Kelly said, “I told him he was wrong.”
Differences over abortion amid new state restrictions
Some of the sharpest exchanges were over abortion as the moderator and Libertarian candidate Marc Victor drew attention to the fact that Masters scrubbed some of the language about his anti-abortion stances from his website as he tried to pivot toward the general election.
Abortion rights have been a subject of fierce controversy in Arizona since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, because there are conflicting abortion laws in the state — leading to debate over which one should take precedence.
The state legislature passed a 15-week ban earlier this year that does not include exceptions for rape or incest, only medical emergencies. Masters has said he supports that plan, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
But Arizona also had a pre-statehood law on the books banning nearly all abortions that was enjoined in 1973 after the Roe decision. A Pima County Superior Court judge recently ruled that it could go back into effect at the urging of the state’s GOP attorney general.
Kelly argued that Masters wants to make decisions for Arizona women and curtail their rights. “I think we all know guys like this,” said Kelly, also faulting Masters for supporting a national ban on abortion at 15 weeks that has been proposed by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“You know, guys that think they know better than everyone about everything,” Kelly continued.
“What I’m doing is I am protecting your constitutional rights,” he added.
When the moderator pressed Kelly to explain what limits he would support on abortion, Kelly said he supports the kind of framework contemplated by the Roe v. Wade decision where “late term abortion in this country only happens when there is a serious problem.”
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