By JONATHAN J. COOPER
PHOENIX (AP) — Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly distanced himself from President Joe Biden on Thursday, calling the U.S.-Mexico border “a mess” and saying his party doesn’t understand border issues during his first and only debate against his Republican challenger Blake Masters.
Masters, trying to back away from some of the hard-line positions he took during the bruising GOP primary, said there should be some limits on abortion but not a national ban, conceded after a few prompts that Biden was the legitimately elected president and acknowledged that he hadn’t seen evidence the 2020 vote count was rigged.
For Masters, the debate was a chance for a reset in his first political campaign, with polls showing he’s trailing Kelly in a race that could help determine party control of the Senate. Kelly, seeking his first full term in office and cognizant of Biden’s faltering approval ratings, sought to portray himself as an effective senator who was working for solutions on the country’s immigration problem and Americans’ economic worries.
On defense over an issue that Republicans have made a central plank of their bid to retake the Senate majority, Kelly said he’s stood up to his party when necessary to stem the flow of illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
“When I got to Washington, D.C., one of the first things I realized was the Democrats don’t understand this issue,” Kelly said. “And Republicans just want to talk about it, complain about it but actually not do anything about it. They just want to politicize that.”
He pointed to his opposition to Biden’s plans to end a pandemic-era program that allows for the speedy removal of immigrants in the name of public health.
“When the president decided he’s going to do something dumb on this and change the rules, that would create a bigger crisis, I told him he was wrong,” Kelly said.
The Arizona race is one of a handful of contests that Republicans targeted in their bid to take control of what is now a 50-50 Senate. Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy pilot, first captured the seat in 2020, winning a special election to fill the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term.
Masters, a protégé of billionaire investor Peter Thiel, was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who cited the candidate’s strident support of his lies about a stolen 2020 election. On Thursday night, Masters tried to pivot away from claims of a rigged election and instead blamed Trump’s loss on a conspiracy among powerful institutions.
“I suspect President Trump would be in the White House today if big tech and big media and the FBI didn’t work together to put the thumb on the scale to get Joe Biden in there,” Masters said, claiming institutions conspired to bury news stories about material on a laptop owned by Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
Under repeated questioning, he acknowledged that he hasn’t seen evidence that the vote count or election results were manipulated, as Trump has claimed. Numerous federal and local officials, a long list of courts, top former campaign staffers and even Trump’s own attorney general have all said there is no evidence of the fraud he alleges.
Masters endeared himself to many GOP primary voters with his penchant for provocation and contrarian thinking. But since then, he has struggled to redefine his image for the more moderate swing voters he will need to win in November.
Kelly drew from a pile of controversial statements Masters made during the primary to portray him as an extremist. He repeatedly hammered Masters’ earlier call to “cut the knot” and “privatize Social Security,” a plan that Kelly said would “send your savings to Wall Street.”
Masters later scrubbed some controversial positions from his website. He now says he wants to protect Social Security for older and middle-aged workers while creating a private investment option for younger workers.
On abortion, Masters said Thursday that he’s “pro-life as a matter of conscience” and believes states should be able to set their own laws on terminating pregnancies, but said he’d support federal legislation banning it after 15 weeks gestation.
During the GOP primary, Masters said abortion was “demonic” and called for a federal personhood law that would give fetuses the rights of people.
Kelly said abortion should be a personal decision and said he supports limits from Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned last summer that guaranteed a right to an abortion.
“I think we all know guys like this, guys that think they know better than everyone about everything,” Kelly said, turning to Masters. “You think you know better than women and doctors about abortion.”
Masters tried to pierce Kelly’s image as an independent moderate willing to work across the aisle. He said Kelly has failed to use his leverage to secure the border and is responsible for rising prices that are forcing families to make tough decisions. The Phoenix metro area has been the hardest hit nationally by inflation, according to an analysis by the personal finance website WalletHub.
“Two years ago Mark Kelly stood right there and he promised to be independent,” Masters said in his opening statement, calling Kelly a reliable vote for Biden’s agenda. “But he broke that promise.”
For Masters, the debate was a chance to go on the offensive against Kelly, whose popularity with independents helped him win two years ago in a state long dominated by Republicans.
Thiel, who employed Masters for most of his adult life and bankrolled the candidate’s primary campaign, has not opened his wallet for the general election, though he has held fundraisers. A super political action committee controlled by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has pared back its own spending commitments.
That has left Democrats an opening to define Masters on their terms.
Masters met Thiel when Masters took a class that the billionaire taught at Stanford University. They wrote a book together, Thiel hired him and Masters eventually rose to senior positions in Thiel’s foundation and his investment firm.
The debate came less than a week before early and mail voting begins in the state, the methods chosen by at least 80% of voters in Arizona in recent elections.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.
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