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Mark Kelly defeats Blake Masters in Arizona, leaving Democrats 1 seat away from holding the Senate

Incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly has defeated his Republican challenger, Blake Masters, in Arizona, boosting Democratic hopes of holding onto the Senate.

With 83% of votes counted, the Associated Press called the race Friday evening for Kelly — a Navy combat veteran, retired NASA astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. He leads Masters, a 36-year-old “anti-progressive” venture capitalist, by an insurmountable 52% to 46% margin.

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With neighboring Nevada, Arizona was one of two battleground states where the Senate result remained up in the air long after Election Day, as officials tallied every last batch of ballots to determine the winner.

Both parties now eagerly await the results from the Silver State, where the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, is locked in a close contest with her Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt.

Although Laxalt has led narrowly for much of the week, analysts predict that his rural firewall will ultimately not be strong enough to withstand Cortez Masto’s 2-to-1 advantage among the tens of thousands of eleventh-hour mail-in voters from in and around Las Vegas and Reno, whose ballots are being counted last. The Nevada race could be called over the weekend.

A third key Senate race — the contest between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and the former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia — is headed for a Dec. 6 run-off. Neither candidate secured the 50% of the vote required to win outright.

Sen. Mark Kelly, under a tree and wearing a NASA jacket, at the microphone.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., speaks at a press conference outside the Arizona State Capitol on Monday in Phoenix. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

But Kelly’s crucial victory in Arizona gives the Democrats 49 Senate seats. Nevada would make it 50. That means that if Cortez Masto beats Laxalt — an outcome that has been looking increasingly likely with every new batch of Democratic-leaning mail ballots — Democrats would retain control of the Senate, regardless of what happens in the Georgia run-off. (In a Senate divided 50-50, Vice President Kamala Harris casts the tie-breaking vote.)

Holding the Senate despite this year’s high inflation — and a long-standing pattern of midterm backlash against the party of the president in power — would rank as the one of the most surprising results of an election in which Democrats performed far better than anyone expected. It would make Joe Biden the first Democratic president since John F. Kennedy in 1962 not only to keep control of the upper chamber of Congress but possibly even to expand his majority there.

Kelly’s victory shows that in what should have been a favorable year for Republicans, there are limits to the appeal of hard-right politics in a key swing state like Arizona.

Masters was propelled to the front of a crowded GOP primary field this summer by the endorsement of former President Donald Trump — and at least $15 million in super-PAC funding from the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, his longtime boss and mentor.

Yet for months, Masters lagged Kelly badly in the polls; as recently as September, the Democratic incumbent was ahead by nearly 9 percentage points, on average. Around that time, the super-PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell canceled roughly $18 million in fall advertisements that it had planned to air in Arizona, after concluding that other states were more winnable.

It was only in the final weeks of the campaign — amid an influx of spending from outside groups linked to Thiel and Trump and a deteriorating national environment for Democrats — that the numbers began to shift in Masters’s favor. The final polls showed a race that was within the margin of error.

Blake Masters forcefully makes a point at the microphone.
Blake Masters, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks at a campaign rally attended by former President Donald Trump at Legacy Sports USA on Oct. 9 in Mesa, Ariz. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. Masters slammed Kelly as a rubber stamp for Joe Biden who was too soft on border issues. But with a massive fundraising advantage — as of Sept. 30, Kelly had raked in $73.1 million to Masters’s $9.7 million — the Democrat was able to solidify his image as an independent-minded moderate.

Kelly also blasted Masters on abortion. In the GOP primary, the Republican had embraced a national abortion ban, then attempted to moderate his stance in the fall by scrubbing his website and settling on a 15-week ban instead.

It probably didn’t hurt that in recent months, Kelly has “helped sink one of Joe Biden’s labor nominees, pushed the president to open new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and hammered the administration over lifting pandemic-era restrictions on the southern border,” according to Politico.

Although he was a reliable vote for Biden’s agenda, several of Kelly’s television ads described him as “working with Republicans” and “stand[ing] up to the left.” At a debate last month, he went so far as to describe some of Biden’s immigration decisions as “dumb.”

Masters, meanwhile, made no secret of his interest in fringe beliefs. When asked in March to name a “subversive thinker” that more people should know about, he picked the anti-tech terrorist Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. He also promoted the idea that the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection was a “false flag” operation and said “Black people, frankly” are to blame for gun violence in many cities.

As a result, preliminary exit polls showed Kelly trouncing Masters among independents — who, at 40%, made up a larger share of Arizona’s electorate than Democrats (27%) or Republicans (33%) — by a remarkable 55% to 39% margin. Typically, the president’s party loses independents by double digits in midterm years. Among self-described moderates — a full 42% of the Arizona electorate — Kelly won by 30 percentage points.

In the end, most Arizona voters (54%) simply said that Masters was “too extreme.” Far fewer (43%) said the same about Kelly.