(The Hill) – Arizona’s GOP Senate primary is turning increasingly bloody in a contest that could determine who wins control of the Senate in November.
As the race to nominate Sen. Mark Kelly’s (D-Ariz.) GOP opponent hurtles toward its Aug. 2 conclusion, businessman Jim Lamon, former tech executive Blake Masters and state Attorney General Mark Brnovich are throwing elbows and millions of dollars around in a race that polls show remains fluid.
Lamon has dumped millions of his own dollars going scorched-earth against Masters over his ties to PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel after Masters scored former President Trump’s endorsement earlier this month. Outside groups backing Masters, like the Club for Growth and a well-heeled super PAC seeded by $13.5 million of Thiel’s money, are responding in kind. And Brnovich is hanging on as Trump harangues him for not overturning his defeat in the state in 2020.
And operatives say it’s just getting started.
“Given the fact that early ballots have not gone out yet, I think there’s still a lot of energy in all of these campaigns where I think they’re going to do everything they can to be successful. It’s shown to date that they’re using the attack strategy,” said Lorna Romero, an Arizona GOP strategist who worked on the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2016 reelection campaign. “I think this is just the start of it.”
What had already been a contentious primary turned into a slugfest this month after Trump endorsed Masters, handing the protege of his ally, Thiel, a key boost.
Lamon, who had already loaned his campaign $13 million in total through the end of the first quarter of 2022, last week released a blistering ad casting Masters as a “fake” and a “puppet” with “Big Tech pulling his strings.” Versions of that message have been echoed in a slew of statements from Lamon.
Another ad touting Lamon’s past military service urges voters to not “believe Blake Masters or his pro-China, Big Tech billionaire.”
Alongside the ads, opposition research dumps appeared almost daily last week, including the unearthing of 17-year-old comments Masters made in which he said a border is just a “line in the sand”; remarks from the spring wondering whether the FBI was involved in last year’s Capitol riot; and an interview from April in which he said “Black people, frankly,” are to blame for gun violence.
Masters’s allies, meanwhile, are using their own considerable funds to hit Lamon at the same time.
The pro-Masters super PAC accused Lamon’s business of having ties to China and of opposing Trump’s foreign policy, while Club for Growth released another ad suggesting Lamon is a secret Democratic sympathizer.
At the same time, Trump has lobbed occasional volleys at Brnovich, this month calling him a “disappointment” for not overturning the results of the 2020 election in Arizona, which the former president baselessly said was “stolen.” Brnovich’s campaign says it’s not concerned the attacks will sink him.
The GOP infighting follows what is increasingly becoming a common theme of Republican primaries.
“If it follows form, which it appears to be doing, a Republican primary is a race to the bottom, and this should be a really great example of that. It’s an ever-increasing smaller audience that the Republican primary voters are trying to talk to and who can be the Trumpiest, who can be the most outrageous,” said veteran Arizona GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin.
The clashes have already sparked grumbling, including from Richard Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence during the Trump administration, who is close to Thiel and has endorsed Lamon.
A source close to Grenell told The Hill that he reached out to the Lamon campaign in May prior to their attack ads being released recommending it leave Thiel — a close Trump ally — out of its messaging. Lamon’s campaign, however, seems to have ignored that advice.
Lamon’s campaign told The Hill that conversation did not take place and indicated it will not let up on its attacks.
“I think they’re very effective,” a GOP strategist supporting Lamon said of the attacks so far. “Frankly, it’s only going to get more aggressive as time goes on.”
“A lot of this hasn’t happened yet,” the source added. “This absolutely will happen. We have millions of dollars to make it happen, not reporting on the past but potentially the future. This is coming.”
People close to Masters, meanwhile, said they’re not concerned about the attacks linking him to Thiel, noting the tech entrepreneur’s well-known Trump-aligned stances.
“I don’t think they’re that impactful. He keeps saying ‘funded by big tech,’ but he can’t even name the one guy he’s talking about, Peter Thiel, because conservatives know Peter Thiel is one of them. And the mistake that Jim Lamon is making is he’s making an assumption that our primary voters are stupid. He thinks that he can make a fake, BS attack like this and our voters are so stupid that they don’t even know how to Google to fact-check it for themselves,” said one GOP consultant supporting Masters.
Polling shows a fluid race among Lamon, Masters and Brnovich, with a Trafalgar Group poll released Monday showing Masters ahead of Brnovich by about 5 points and Lamon by more than 10 points. The same poll from April showed Lamon leading Brnovich by 1 point and Masters by about 6 points.
Both polls show that more than 20 percent of voters are undecided.
“It’s a three-way scrum right now between Lamon, Masters and Brnovich. Any one of those could come out on top,” said one GOP strategist based in the West.
But while the candidates duke it out to collect support from undecided voters, some Republicans are voicing concerns that their ultimate nominee will be too bloodied after the late primary and aren’t focusing on a message that appeals to a purple state general electorate.
“People want to talk about water. People want to talk about education, not just about the culture war in classrooms,” Coughlin said. “I’d be talking about that narrative. But nobody is currently doing it. I’m waiting to see if somebody opens up the book and starts playing a larger narrative here, but we’ll see.”
“It’s the same shit, that everything gets D.C.-ified,” he lamented. “Everything follows the same narrative. Nobody understands the electorate outside of the lens of national politics.”
Those worries are only heightened by the outsized importance of any Senate race in the 50-50 chamber, with each individual seat having the power to determine party control — and with the fire trained on each other, no candidate is consistently bashing Kelly, the perceived centrist they’re all trying to unseat.
“You’re spending all your time attacking your primary opponent and then that short shift of you having to go after Mark Kelly. It’s typically a dual approach, a primary and a general strategy,” Romero, the McCain campaign veteran, said. “Whoever comes out of it is going to be bruised and battered, and has spent a lot of money, and [is] going into a very expensive general where they’ve already been defined.”