Will the Real “Independent” Please Stand Up?

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

After a heated Republican primary and some lukewarm Democratic battles, candidates for Arizona’s statewide offices are positioning themselves for the general election on November 8th. Even the winners of the most contentious races, like Kari Lake, are calling for post-primary unity among members of their party.

When the clock struck 8 pm on Tuesday evening and the first returns were posted, there were still races that remained up in the air. That wasn’t the case for the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, which was clearly shaping up to be a victory for Blake Masters early in the night.

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Who is Blake Masters?

Masters, a Tucson native, made his name in venture capital.

During his time as a student at Stanford Law School, he took a class with Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire. Throughout the course, premised on entrepreneurship and innovation, Masters took meticulous notes and published them online. Thiel took notice, and asked Masters if he wanted to write a book with him based on those notes. That proposal became Zero to One, which is often referred to as the “Bible” by many private equity folks and “finance bros.”

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Shortly after, Masters became involved with Thiel’s ventures, rising to become Chief Operating Officer at Thiel Capital, and President of the Thiel Foundation. Now, he’s the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Arizona. At age 36, he would be the second youngest U.S. Senator (Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia is 35). An unorthodox candidate, Masters put several heterodox issues at the forefront of his primary campaign: population decline, cryptocurrency, and the inability of a family with one income to own a home and live a financially stable life. He also spoke to many mainstream issues like border security, gun rights, and election security.

Now, as Masters looks to November, his campaign seems to be mirroring an unlikely mentor: Kyrsten Sinema.

The Sinema Strategy

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), then a Congresswoman representing downtown Phoenix, ran against Rep. Martha McSally, who represented southern Arizona, in 2018. McSally had embraced President Trump’s endorsement, especially during the primary, where she fended off now-Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Sinema struck a different tone, orienting her campaign around being an “independent voice” in Congress who was willing to buck the party line.

In describing why she believed her strategy would work in 2018, she told the Atlantic, “In Arizona, folks […] just want you to deliver real results for them, because we’re super practical and we’re very pragmatic people.”

Her strategy paid off: she beat McSally by 2.4%, while Republican Governor Doug Ducey won his race on the same ballot by 14.2%. Ducey ran against David Garcia, who embraced a progressive platform, touting an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The contrast between Sinema and Garcia was so vast that the two refused to endorse one another, and Sinema was only caught in one picture with Garcia throughout the entire campaign.

Mark Kelly, who won the other U.S. Senate in 2020, ran a very similar campaign to Sinema’s. He beat then-Sen. Martha McSally (she was appointed by Governor Ducey to fill the vacancy left by late Sen. McCain) by the same 2.4% margin as Sinema did in 2018.

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Blake Masters, independent?

Masters has made a dramatic messaging shift since August 3rd. His ads have shifted from videos of drones and Border Patrol agents guarding the southern border from hordes of migrants, to a clip of his wife talking about his love for his family and country, with videos of him with his family playing on-screen.

“He’s in it because he loves his country so much,” she says as images of Masters with his children flash across the screen, “He would make Arizona so proud.”

 The ad is reminiscent of an ad Sinema ran in 2018, in which former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods speaks about Sinema and her record on protecting children from sexual abuse in Congress.

“Kyrsten Sinema is a tremendous public servant,” says Grant, with videos of Sinema conversing with constituents in the background.

Masters’ logo at the end of his ad reads: “Blake Masters: A True Independent for Arizona.” His wording is nearly identical to Sinema’s: “Kyrsten Sinema: Independent, Just Like Arizona.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Masters’ opponent, had no pivot to make: he ran unopposed in his primary race. Already, Kelly’s ads are attacking Masters for his pro-life stance on abortion, and trumpeting Kelly’s support of gas tax decreases and expanding oil drilling operations to reduce gas prices. Both Senate candidates are rhetorically aiming for the center. Kelly and Masters don’t seem to see a path to victory if they’re branded as partisans.

During the primary, when he was still lagging in the polls, Masters told Politico, “I don’t think Arizonans want a moderate […] Look, I’m bold. I’m running a bold campaign.” But his independent appeal still oozed through his primary campaign rhetoric. He would frequently say that his policies were not necessarily moderate, but “common sense.” After all, “Who would find a family-centric, pro-America agenda controversial?” he asked a Politico reporter.

His tone struck many voters as more genuine than his opponents, who included Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, energy executive Jim Lamon, former Adjutant General for the Arizona National Guard Mick McGuire, and Corporation Commissioner Justin Olson.

Rebels with a cause

Sinema and Masters both have unique political pasts that make their transitions towards the center even more unlikely. Sinema was a member of the Green Party who sported a pink tutu while protesting the Iraq War. Masters was a right-wing libertarian who forged a career in venture capital.

Why are they both positioning themselves more towards the center? Probably because you can’t win a statewide election in Arizona without winning over independent voters, says political consultant, Landon Wall.

Landon Wall, the pollster at Alloy Analytics, says that independent voters in Arizona “have a different set of priorities than the primary electorate that candidates just spent months messaging to.” In particular, he notes that independent voters may lean closer to Democrats on social issues like gun regulation and abortion, but believe that Republicans are better equipped to handle border issues and the rising cost of living, both of which are top 3 issues for independents in Arizona.

In a forthcoming poll by Alloy Analytics of 600 likely voters that are registered independents in Arizona, respondents were asked “Which of the below issues should be a higher priority for Arizona’s next Governor…?” and given 3 choices.

34% of respondents answered “Addressing inflation and the rising cost of living”, 34% said “Securing the border and reducing illegal immigration” and 28% said “Keeping abortion legal and available.” Independents’ top two issues going into November are aligned with the GOP, but abortion access — a priority for Democrats — comes in third.

Arizona’s preference for “mavericks” goes back far beyond Sinema. John McCain, the consummate “maverick,” embodied an attitude that has been with the state since its territorial days, and perhaps earlier. The state voted for former Coldstone Creamery executive Doug Ducey and bisexual triathlete Kyrsten Sinema on the same ballot. Mark Kelly is an astronaut with a shaved head. It’s simply a weird place. And Arizonans like it that way.

There are many differences between Masters and Sinema. Masters is certainly not spurning fellow Republican candidates who are campaigning to his right, as Sinema did with those to her left, like David Garcia. But the two are more similar than they appear.

Sinema was a social worker who wore pink tutus to war protests. Masters was a venture capitalist known for his heterodox libertarian views in college. Only in Arizona would this pair find so much in common.

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This article was published by The Western Tribune and is reproduced with permission.  Joe Pitts is cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of the Western Tribune.

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