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Why the U.S. Senate race in Arizona is imperative for Democrats

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Control of the U.S. Senate may come down to Arizona, where incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly faces off against Republican Blake Masters. Masters is one of a slate of election-denying candidates in Arizona that former President Donald Trump successfully endorsed in the primaries. But it's Kelly who holds the advantage in the race, both in recent polls and with his sizable campaign war chest. Ben Giles of member station KJZZ in Phoenix has been following this campaign. Ben, Kelly and Masters faced off in their lone debate of the general election last night. What is your biggest takeaway from it?

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Well, so Arizona elections are always won in the middle. Independents are a significant portion, about a third of the state's voting population. So from the get-go, both Masters and Kelly, they tried to describe themselves as the true independent in the race and cast the other as a radical. Masters right away sought to link Kelly to President Biden and congressional Democrats.

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BLAKE MASTERS: In Washington, Mark Kelly backs Joe Biden every single time without thinking twice, without thinking of Arizona. And, you know, it's not what he said he'd do. Two years ago, Mark Kelly stood right there and he promised to be independent, but he broke that promise.

GILES: Kelly, meanwhile, cast himself as someone willing to stand up to his own party when it comes to issues like inflation.

MARTINEZ: And inflation and the economy are two of the biggest issues on the minds of voters in Arizona and actually nationally, too. And Democrats are in control right now. So what did Kelly have to say about his record on inflation?

GILES: So Kelly has been out campaigning on two key Democratic victories - the bipartisan infrastructure bill and then also the Inflation Reduction Act passed earlier this year. Kelly says he knows how tough it is right now for Arizona families.

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MARK KELLY: I know it's hard. That's why I've worked to cut costs. Hey, when the president, when the Biden administration refused to increase oil and gas production, I told him he was wrong.

GILES: And there, even in a conversation about inflation, Kelly, again, is bringing the conversation back to his independence. But Masters said it's Kelly's votes with the Biden agenda, votes for bills like the Inflation Reduction Act, that are actually worsening the country's economy.

MARTINEZ: And recently, a local judge in Arizona reinstated a ban from the 1860s on virtually all abortions in Arizona. So people in Arizona are thinking about abortion right now. How have the candidates responded?

GILES: Kelly said Thursday that he would support codifying Roe v. Wade, and he believes abortion law is needed at the federal level to protect women's rights. He also attacked Masters for past statements he's made calling abortion demonic and a religious sacrifice.

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KELLY: These are his words. He has supported state and national abortion bans that will deny the right for a woman to make this decision by themselves.

GILES: Masters, during the debate, dodged questions about some previous tough-on-abortion positions that he scrubbed from his campaign website, at least since winning the primary in August. Thursday night, he repeated a softer stance on abortion rights.

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MASTERS: 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. Senator Mark Kelly is the abortion radical.

GILES: Masters said that he believes abortion laws are best left to the states. But then he also said he supports a federal 15-week abortion ban introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham to prevent states like California, he says, from enacting more liberal policies.

MARTINEZ: That's Ben Giles at member station KJZZ. Ben, thanks a lot.

GILES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ben Giles