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In debate, election denier Masters says no evidence of rigged voting process

Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Republican Blake Masters clashed at the first and perhaps only debate in a battleground Senate race that will help determine control of the chamber next year

Members of the media watch Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, left, and his Republican challenger Blake Masters during a debate in Phoenix on Thursday. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Blake Masters, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Arizona who has baselessly denied the results of 2020 election, on Thursday called Joe Biden the “legitimate president” and said he had seen no evidence the vote count was rigged, even as he continued spreading groundless allegations of government interference in the outcome.

The comments by Masters in a debate with Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), whom he trails in the polls, marked a stark shift from a campaign ad last year, in which the Republican said, “I think Trump won in 2020.” But even as Masters sought to de-emphasize that position, he groundlessly claimed the federal government “forced” big tech companies to censor information that would have propelled Donald Trump to victory.

Without those actions, Masters said, “I suspect President Trump would be in the White House today.”

Kelly, meanwhile, worked to distance himself from President Biden, at one point saying he told Biden he was “wrong” when the president “decided he was going to do something dumb” on border policy with Mexico. And he attacked Masters over abortion and Social Security, hammering him over prior comments he had made.

“I think we all know guys like this. You know, guys that think they know better than everyone about everything. You know, you think you know better than women and doctors about abortion. You even think you know better than seniors about Social Security,” said Kelly.

Clashing at the first and perhaps only debate in a battleground Senate race that will help determine control of the chamber next year, Masters and Kelly often geared their pitches toward moderate voters. Masters, a first-time candidate and venture capitalist, has consistently lagged Kelly, a former astronaut, in polls and fundraising, showing particular weakness with political independents.

While Kelly’s lead and massive war chest have led some Republicans to pin their Senate hopes on other states, the Arizona race remains competitive and expensive. Democrats have targeted Masters on the airwaves for positions he took during the GOP primary and has since backed away from — a dynamic on display Thursday night as the moderator pressed Masters on the 2020 election and abortion policy.

Masters pulled ahead in a crowded GOP primary after Trump endorsed him and he embraced Trump’s false claims about the election early on.

Asked during the debate Thursday whether Biden was legitimately elected, Masters said Biden is “absolutely the president. … He’s duly sworn and certified. He’s the legitimate president. He’s in the White House.”

Then Masters claimed the FBI “forced” and “pressured” large tech companies to “censor true information” about alleged wrongdoing by Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said the company restricted sharing of an article on Hunter Biden after the FBI told his company it should be on “high alert” for activity similar to “Russian propaganda” in the 2016 election. But Zuckerberg also said the agency did not warn Facebook about that story specifically.

“But not vote counting, not election results?” asked the moderator, Arizona PBS host Ted Simons.

“Yeah, I haven’t seen evidence of that,” Masters said.

When pressed on 2020, Masters has often focused his criticisms on suppression of information by “Big Tech” rather than the voting system itself.

The comments came as Masters prepares to rally with Trump in Arizona this weekend, alongside other GOP candidates who have more wholeheartedly embraced the former president’s false claims of a vote tainted by fraud, such as gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake.

“The only reason that we’re having this conversation is because my opponent Blake Masters put out a video questioning who won the presidential election here in the state of Arizona,” Kelly said, warning of a situation where “the wheels come off of our democracy.”

Trump is also set to campaign this weekend with the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Nevada, Joe Lombardo, who struck a clearer contrast with Trump at a debate last weekend. Lombardo reiterated his view the election was not stolen and admitted that Trump’s insistence otherwise “bothers” him.

Masters on Thursday vehemently defended his stance on abortion, an issue that has left him and other Republican candidates backtracking amid popular opposition to strict new bans. He said he supports a ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy, at both the state and federal level, and also backed late-term exceptions to save the life of the mother.

In Arizona, a near-total abortion ban recently took effect, overriding a newer 15-week ban passed by the state legislature.

Kelly repeatedly referenced Masters’s comments about abortion during the Republican primary. Asked at one point last year if he would support a federal ban similar to Arizona’s near-total ban, Masters said yes.

Pressed about his position on late-term abortions, Kelly did not back any particular limit but said he supports the “restrictions and the protections that were allowed” under Roe v. Wade. The landmark Supreme Court case placed no national restrictions on abortion but guaranteed access to abortions up until the point a fetus can survive outside the womb.

The first-term senator made a point throughout the debate to criticize national Democrats, saying he told Biden “he was wrong” on oil and gas policy. He also repeatedly brought up Masters’s comments during a primary debate that “maybe we should privatize Social Security” — a controversial proposition, particularly in a state with a large population of retirees.

Masters backed off from the comments over the summer. But that hasn’t stopped Democrats from using the issue in a barrage of ads.

“Let’s be clear,” Masters responded, “the greatest threat to seniors’ retirement today is the massive crushing inflation that Joe Biden and Mark Kelly caused.” Republicans have hammered Democrats for federal relief packages that most experts say contributed to rising prices; Democrats say the aid was badly needed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Masters sought to focus on the Biden administration, saying Kelly was a reliable vote for Biden’s agenda. He contrasted Kelly with Arizona’s other senator, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, whose refusal to back certain Democratic priorities has frustrated her party and won praise from Republicans.

Masters also attacked Kelly on border policy, an especially prominent issue in Arizona. He called for building a border wall and doubling the size of the Border Patrol agency, criticizing Kelly for approving federal legislation that funded new IRS staff but not Border Patrol agents.

Discussing the border, Kelly said that “Democrats don’t understand the issue,” while Republicans want to “complain” about it and politicize it.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.