PHOENIX – The Arizona candidates for U.S. Senate sparred on the debate stage Thursday night with border security, abortion rights and elections integrity dominating the hour-long debate.
Incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., GOP challenger Blake Masters, and Libertarian Marc Victor gathered at Arizona PBS in downtown Phoenix for the live debate, which garnered national attention and was sponsored by the Clean Elections Commission.
Masters lumped Kelly and President Joe Biden together on controversial topics while Kelly highlighted bipartisanship and attempted to distance himself from the president on issues like immigration.
In 2020, Kelly, husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and a former NASA astronaut, won a special election against Republican Martha McSally for the Senate seat previously occupied by longtime Republican Sen. John McCain, who died of brain cancer in 2018. Kelly’s win was instrumental in securing a Democratic majority in the Senate.
Masters, author and former executive at investment firm Thiel Capital, has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump and served on Trump’s presidential transition team. While tech billionaire Peter Thiel reportedly gave $15 million to the Saving Arizona PAC to support Masters’ campaign in the Republican primary, fundraising by Masters’ own campaign has trailed Kelly’s badly. Masters reported raising just over $5 million by late September, compared to Kelly’s $54.1 million as of mid-July, according to their latest Federal Election Commission filings.
Immigration and border security
Immigration was a hot topic during the debate. The national issue is especially controversial in Arizona given Southwest border security concerns. Gov. Doug Ducey recently ordered gaps in the border wall to be filled with shipping containers near Yuma amid a more than 200% increase in border encounters in the Yuma sector in fiscal year 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
Masters accused Kelly and other Democrats of “surrendering our southern border.” Masters said that he was worried about drugs like fentanyl coming across the border and said he wants to increase the number of Border Patrol agents and deportations out of the U.S.
“I think the correct amount of illegal immigration is zero; that’s what federal law says,” Masters said. “The problem is that Joe Biden and Mark Kelly are willfully ignoring federal law.”
Kelly said that he has fought back against other Democrats and the president on border security. In August, Kelly and fellow Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema introduced a bipartisan bill to increase pay and staffing for Border Patrol officers. He also said that he supports physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’ve been focused on this since day one, and I brought more resources here to the state of Arizona to deal with this issue,” Kelly said.
Victor took a broader approach on immigration, saying that the border needs to be more secure but that he wanted there to be more streamlined processes for asylum and citizenship.
After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, abortion rights have become even more contentious. In Arizona, a Pima County judge last month reinstated a 1901 law that imposes a near-total ban on abortions in the state.
When the debate came to abortion, Kelly took a hard stance in support of protecting abortion rights. He said there should be a federal law that codifies a woman’s right to an abortion and that late-stage abortions should be protected.
Kelly went on the attack and claimed that Masters wants a national abortion ban.
“You think you know better than women and doctors about abortion,” Kelly said. “We all know guys like this, and we can’t be letting them make decisions about us because it’s just dangerous.”
Masters said he does not support a national ban on abortion but that he supports putting limits on abortion. Specifically, he said he supported a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy that was introduced in the Senate last month by Republicans.
Kelly claimed that Masters has softened his abortion stance in recent months. Masters denied these claims and said that states should individually decide their abortion laws. He also repeatedly emphasized his support for a federal limit on abortions, especially late-stage abortions.
“I think at the federal level, we should not be allowing late-term partial-birth abortion all the way up until the moment of birth and except to save the life of the mother,” Masters said. “I believe in limits.”
Victor said that government should not be involved in abortion decisions and that “there is no perfect solution.”
The candidates also discussed election integrity. Masters said that he hasn’t seen evidence of election fraud in 2020, backtracking on past claims. He said that he wanted to impose a universal voter ID law in future elections while Kelly said that he thinks Arizona does elections well and that he wants to expand voting by mail.
Eyes from across the country were turned toward the debate due to its importance to the balance of power in the Senate and the test to Arizona’s traditionally conservative electorate.
Arizona voter registration is open through Tuesday, and early voting begins on Wednesday. Election Day is Nov. 8.