SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Blake Masters vividly remembers in 2015 when a debate moderator reminded Donald Trump of the language he’d used to insult and belittle women.
That moment stuck with Masters, then working in Silicon Valley. He saw how a brash and defiant stance could resonate in politics.
“Somehow he just busted through some wall,” said Masters, a 35-year-old venture capitalist and first-time Republican candidate, in a nearly two-hour interview last month. “He didn’t apologize. He kind of just picked on her as this target.”
Masters added: “That’s when I really started to pay attention. I thought it could be powerful.”
Now running for the Senate in a crucial battleground with Trump’s endorsement and more than $13 million in funding from tech billionaire Peter Thiel, Masters cites the former president as his political inspiration, both in style and substance. In an election year when GOP party leaders hope to rally voters around common concerns over rising inflation, crime and frustration with President Biden, Masters embraces the provocative and polarizing, portraying himself as a fighter in a culture war in the model of Trump, who is set to campaign with him Friday.
Masters’s showing in the Aug. 2 primary marks the next big test of a movement some have dubbed the “New Right.” Its members preach economic populism, nationalism and conservative social values and pride themselves on breaking political taboos.
Critics say Masters’s rhetoric capitalizes on racial divisions for political gain. He has accused Democrats of trying to “change the demographics of our country” to win elections, and in interviews with The Washington Post he denounced immigrants who “transparently don’t even want to try to fit in,” offering Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as an example. He casually mentioned a “Muslim terrorism problem” while explaining other comments on race and gun violence that drew a backlash. Omar’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
“He is promoting, knowingly, lies that have cost real lives and real harm,” said Zachary Mueller, the political director of America’s Voice, which advocates for undocumented immigrants and tracks racism in campaign ads. “He’s not just a regular guy on the street talking with his friends and debating ideas. He’s running for U.S. Senate.”
Masters’s supporters cheer his unfiltered persona, saying he seems to shun consultant-approved talking points. “He speaks truth to power,” said Austin Smith, chairman of the Arizona Young Republicans. “I think Blake talks about cultural issues that matter to everyday Arizonans.”
With calls for a nationwide abortion ban and a campaign ad declaration that “Trump won” in 2020, Masters has adopted some of the farthest-right stances and rhetoric in a staunchly conservative field — fueling some concerns among GOP strategists that his embrace of extremes could imperil their efforts to regain control of the narrowly divided Senate. Many Arizona Republicans view Masters as the front-runner after Trump’s endorsement.
On the 2020 election, some see a calculated attempt to win political support. Two longtime associates said Masters admitted privately as recently as 2021 that Biden won the 2020 election, but felt he needed to call the election fraudulent to win Trump’s endorsement. One of the associates said Masters argued at the same time that there were voting irregularities in Arizona.
Katie Miller, an adviser to Masters’s campaign, called the associates’ claims “categorically false” and said, “The Washington Post is allowing anonymous sources to fulfill their narrative about the only true America First candidate in the race.”
This story is based on interviews with Masters and more than two dozen associates, supporters, critics and strategists. Many spoke on the record, but some spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions and discussions.
With early voting underway, Masters is in competition for the GOP nomination against businessman Jim Lamon and state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, all vying for a chance to take on Sen. Mark Kelly (D).
Masters’s views are shared by Republican candidates around the country who have sharply criticized U.S. border policy, campaigned on Trump’s false election claims and leaned into firestorms over school discussions of race and LGBTQ issues. But Masters stands out for his full-throated embrace of potentially divisive issues in a state that has previously sent moderates such as John McCain, Jeff Flake and Kyrsten Sinema to the Senate. Top Republicans once hoped to recruit a more traditional conservative, the term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey (R), for this year’s high-stakes race.
“I think it’s better when people can actually talk about stuff, even if some of it is outside the balance of traditional political discourse,” Masters said in his interviews with The Post.
Like J.D. Vance, the Thiel- and Trump-backed GOP nominee for Senate in Ohio, Masters has spent time in the elite circles he now criticizes — attending Stanford University and working for years in Silicon Valley as a protege of Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and co-founder of PayPal. In 2012, he took a Stanford class on start-ups with Thiel and began sharing his notes on a blog — the starting point for a best-selling book published under both Thiel’s and Masters’s names. He became chief operating officer of the investment firm Thiel Capital and president of Thiel’s personal foundation.
Masters, who grew up in Tucson, said he has long been interested in politics but grew discouraged when Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential race. He figured conservative candidates had dim prospects. Then Trump came along: “It was kind of breathtaking, actually,” Masters said. “It’s like this bull in a china shop moment. Like here, finally, is a guy who’s willing to tell the truth.”
A core theme of Masters’s Senate platform was evident at a local GOP meeting last month as he addressed a subdued, mostly older crowd at a library west of Phoenix. “It’s time for Republicans and conservatives to wake up and realize we’re in a culture war,” Masters said. He said young people are being taught to “hate their country,” then turned to “perverse gender ideology,” prompting one woman in the folding chairs to chime in with a “yes.”
“Too many Republicans still just want to focus on you know, economic policy,” he said. “Which is important. … We should be the party of low taxes. But if that’s all we are, if that’s all Republicans bring to the table, we’ll be crushed.”
Masters told The Post he teared up at Thiel’s gay wedding and believes you can “do whatever you want in your own house.” But he calls Pride Month excessive and is part of a growing GOP backlash against school discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Last month he joined a slew of GOP candidates outraged over a worksheet designed to put heterosexual people in the shoes of LGBTQ people, with questions such as, “Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a phase you may just grow out of?”
School staff in Scottsdale used the worksheet to plan part of an optional high school student leadership camp, a district spokesperson said.
“We’re failing at the basics, and we’re teaching kids, like, gay sex ideology,” Masters told The Post when asked why he objected. He rejects accusations of homophobia.
Some GOP strategists want to keep the focus on financial and safety concerns many voters are confronting. Kelly has scrambled to distance himself from Biden’s struggles to avoid chaos at the border — a major issue in this state — and has been forced on the defensive over rising prices, both signs of his vulnerability, GOP strategists said. Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokesperson for Kelly’s campaign, said the senator represents “the interests of Arizonans, even when that means standing up to his own party.”
Many party strategists said that any Republican candidate who emerges from the primary will be well-positioned. But some Republicans watching the fight for control of the evenly divided Senate see some of Masters’s comments — both past and present — as potential liabilities. Democrats have already criticized Masters along with his GOP rivals, who have also advocated hard-right views. Lamon has called to “Rescind all Chinese Visas of any kind” because “America should not be the educating or training ground for citizens of communist countries.”
A national Republican strategist who works on Senate races said Masters’s college-era writings — which criticized American involvement in World War II while noting the “hot button issue” of the Holocaust — have stoked concerns about Masters among Jewish Republicans.
In a 2006 essay published on an antiwar website and first reported by Jewish Insider, Masters argued the U.S. “hasn’t been involved in a just war in over 140 years” and concluded with a quote from Nazi leader Hermann Goering, who said “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.” Masters told the publication his essay “went too far” and that by citing Goering, he was not endorsing “all of his views.”
One national Jewish leader who spoke with Masters after the writings surfaced said community leaders have been reassured by their conversations with him and that Masters emphasized he holds different views today. Miller, the Masters adviser, defended the candidate, saying, “I’m a Jewish Republican and I’m proud to work for Blake Masters.”
The neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin has also endorsed Masters (“I’ve never heard of this guy and I reject his support,” Masters told the Arizona Republic) and an article website VDARE, which posts writing by White nationalists, has called him an “immigration patriot.” Masters told The Post he does not support VDARE and added, “I don’t do the guilt by association thing.” Anglin did not respond to requests for comment.
Also alarming to some critics: Masters’s echoes of “replacement theory,” which baselessly alleges an elite plot to replace White Americans with immigrants. Masters has claimed Democrats support loosening immigration laws because they want to “change the demographics of our country” and “import an entirely new electorate,” a view he reiterated hours after officials say a gunman subscribing to replacement theory carried out a racist massacre in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo.
As an online screed by the alleged Buffalo shooter began to circulate, Masters tweeted a clip of his interview days earlier with conservative podcast host Ben Shapiro. In it, Masters claimed Democrats were welcoming undocumented immigrants “so that some day they can amnesty these people and make them voters who they expect to vote Democrat.” Asked in interviews with The Post about evidence for his claims of the Democratic strategy, Masters called the question “insane” and argued he is making a reasonable inference about Democrats’ intentions, a view echoed by many other Republicans.
Democrats say their immigration policy ideas are meant to treat undocumented immigrants humanely and call Masters’s rhetoric part of a broader resistance to an increasingly multicultural America. “My Republican colleagues in the state and all over the country, they have an issue with the Hispanics becoming the majority in this country,” said Arizona state Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales (D).
Masters told The Post that his commentary was unrelated to the Buffalo shooting and denied any attempt to stir controversy or condone the shooter’s beliefs.
Some of Masters’s views have shifted dramatically from his younger libertarian years, when old friends and classmates say he had Ron Paul signs in the front yard, advocated for abortion rights and blogged in college about the case for “unrestricted” immigration. In a 2005 post, Masters praised American officials caught smuggling cocaine from Mexico to the U.S., calling them heroes for “seeking a profit while conducting trade between groups of consenting adults, in the face of government oppression.”
Now Masters tells voters he wants to “finish the wall” at the southern border, end illegal immigration and amend the Constitution to outlaw abortions across the country. In the Post interviews, he said he was “not sure how vocal” and “not sure how pro” he was on abortion back in school. He refers to the LiveJournal entries — first reported by Jewish Insider and now featured in Republican attack ads against him — as part of his “embarrassing libertarian phase.”
The Masters campaign connected a reporter with Daniel Bell, a friend from law school, who said he remembered Masters criticizing Roe v. Wade and opposing undocumented immigration at the time. “He is genuine in what he’s doing,” said Bell.
Other old friends who now revile Masters’s politics said his shift to the right caught them off guard.
Collin Wedel, the best man at Masters’s wedding — who now calls his campaign racist and homophobic — said he assumed Masters would disdain Trump and wondered if he felt awkward when Thiel endorsed Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention. In fact, Masters says he helped write the speech; soon he was tapped for Trump’s presidential transition team. A representative for Thiel said he was not available for an interview.
About a year into the Trump administration, Masters began to tell associates that he was interested in running for Senate in Arizona, one longtime Masters associate said. He tapped his ties in Trump and Thiel’s universe for advice on how to position himself politically, according to this person and another longtime associate.
The two associates said that until roughly three years ago, Masters did not express negative views about China, and that he had said he believed in more a more traditional Republican business-friendly approach to immigration, which included advocating for highly-skilled visa holders. Both said he had also shifted his thinking about Silicon Valley, becoming a critic of so-called Big Tech as he became closer with people in Trump’s orbit.
In interviews, Masters said Trump changed his thinking on China and free trade. And he reiterated his criticisms of the H-1B visa program often used by foreign tech workers, saying it drives down wages and likening it to “indentured servitude.”
Some Republicans said they are flummoxed by certain positions taken by Masters and other leading GOP candidates, fearing they will alienate centrist voters. The rhetoric on immigration “just boggles me because we’ve seen the past two election cycles,” said Lorna Romero Ferguson, a conservative political consultant in Arizona.
Others are less concerned. “I really do think that there’s been a change in what people feel is disqualifying,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a former chief of staff to Ducey, the Arizona governor. “I do think that part of [Masters’s] appeal is that people feel that he’s being genuine.”