The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Peter Thiel’s pet candidate may doom the GOP’s Senate hopes

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel and Arizona GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters. (From left: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

After Blake Masters triumphed in Arizona’s GOP Senate primary, he quickly set about erasing the foul stains of Trumpism that powered his victory. Having campaigned on violent imagery and an ugly, dishonest version of “great replacement theory,” he began running more cheerful, uplifting ads. He whitewashed his website’s absolutist antiabortion stance.

Now all this shape-shifting appears to be imperiling Masters’s effort to oust Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. The New York Times talked to a bunch of independent voters in Arizona and found that they see him as “inauthentic, slippery on the issues and not truly dedicated to Arizona.”

Masters’s struggles underscore a little-noticed fact about this moment: Crafting a right-wing populist nationalism for the post-Donald Trump era — one with broad appeal — is turning out to be a harder political project than its boosters surely expected.

Tech billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled Masters — and J.D. Vance’s Senate candidacy in Ohio — in part to advance that project. Yet while Vance is favored to win, his travails have forced the Republican Party to dump millions of dollars into a rescue operation. And if Masters can’t win in a state President Biden carried by fewer than 11,000 votes, the GOP’s path to a Senate majority gets a lot harder.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Masters, right now, is seen by forecasters as likely to lose. And a new Suffolk University poll, conducted last week, finds Kelly leading Masters by 49 percent to 42 percent among likely voters.

In that poll, Masters trails by an astonishing 15 points among independents. The Times reports that Masters is struggling to win over the “ticket-splitters, moderates and independents,” voters who have outsize importance in statewide Arizona elections.

Seasoned Arizona Republicans say Masters’s challenge is to bridge the gap between the GOP’s Trumpist core — which is particularly virulent in Arizona, a state with border challenges and rampant election conspiracy theories — and moderates who are still drawn to former senator John McCain’s brand of Republicanism.

You often hear that McCain Republicanism — which was relatively more pro-immigration, though it did at times employ ugly, race-baiting appeals — has been decisively displaced inside the GOP by the rise of Trump. But Trump, of course, never won a majority of the vote.

The Masters-Vance approach was an answer to this, an attempt to make Trumpism palatable to popular majorities. It would dispense with Trump’s crass excesses. It would combine anti-plutocratic feints (rhetoric about flat wages and globalization) and repurposed social conservatism (attacks on jargon about race, sex and gender) with appeals to supposedly widespread cultural-demographic anxieties (toughness on immigration).

This politics could supposedly reach the multiracial working class — the sensible, culturally conservative middle said to be alienated by disorienting migration surges, woke global corporations and radical leftists brainwashing your kids.

But Masters’s travails suggest it is actually quite hard to craft a broadly appealing version of this politics.

To activate the Trumpist core, Masters ran lurid ads featuring machine gun fire at the border, swarthy hordes invading the country, and absurdly hyperbolic warnings that the country is sliding into cultural and demographic armageddon, in no small part because, he said, the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Though this sort of rhetoric has long been standard GOP fare, the Masters-Vance-Thiel approach laces it with overtly authoritarian appeals. As Vanity Fair’s James Pogue reports, Masters and Thiel belong to a New Right movement that believes the United States is already sliding into cultural and demographic catastrophe and our institutions are corrupted beyond repair, requiring the robust use of state power as a corrective against enemies who are engineering U.S. decline.

But this viewpoint has not proven to be politically popular. Joshua Tait, a scholar of conservatism, says it’s hard to package this catastrophism for the mainstream, because it paints a profoundly “negative” and “critical” picture of what “the United States is.”

“I don’t think that necessarily flies with a lot of normal people,” Tait told me.

Die-hard believers are “absolutely convinced of their own apocalyptic rhetoric,” Tait continued, but “are we right at the verge of a collapse? I don’t know if that resonates.”

Masters is struggling with independents, the Times report suggests, in part because he plunged down a rabbit hole of deranged apocalypticism — that perpetual hunt for leftist enemies everywhere — and is now furiously trying to pretty it all up. But once you go down that rabbit hole, it’s hard to find your way out again.

Thiel has rebuffed GOP requests that he put more money behind Masters, as The Post recently reported, even though Masters was chief operating officer of his investment firm. It’s unclear whether Thiel fears Masters will lose, but it certainly doesn’t betray confidence.

In the end, how should we gauge the electoral success of the Thielites’ spin on Trumpism? Vance is still likely to win in Ohio, but if he falls short of Trump’s eight-point margin in the state in 2020, it would suggest this politics performed worse than the original rendition did.

For Masters’s part, it’s remarkable that he’s struggling so badly, given that he’s running amid so much economic discontent in a true swing state that Biden barely won. Masters may still prevail, but his campaign is surely not going as well as evangelists for this vaunted new politics expected.