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Senate candidates walk Trump tightrope as he returns to Arizona

Four top GOP candidates have avoided mentioning ex-president by name

Former President Donald Trump will return Saturday to Arizona, where Republicans are looking to rebound after losing both of the state’s Senate seats in the past two elections.

Unlike candidates in other states with contested Senate GOP primaries, the top four Republicans vying to take on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly next year are embracing Trump’s policies but aren’t mentioning Trump by name in their early messaging. Their launch videos and websites make little to no mention of the former president, who lost the Grand Canyon State by just 10,000 votes in November. 

Some Republicans expect that to change as the jockeying for Trump’s endorsement picks up. 

Doing that, however, requires walking a political tightrope. Candidates need to win over enough Trump supporters to secure the GOP nomination without alienating the broader coalition needed to win in November 2022. Arizona Republican strategists largely agree that the broader coalition includes disaffected Republicans who were fed up with Trump’s rhetoric. 

“Trump policies did not lose Arizona,” said Stan Barnes, a GOP political consultant and former state legislator. “Trump the personality lost Arizona.”

Balancing act

Trump’s name was mostly missing from each of the four top candidates’ launch videos and campaign websites. His name briefly flashed on screen during state Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s video as part of a headline noting that Brnovich defended Trump’s immigration policies. 

Blake Masters, who runs billionaire Peter Thiel’s investment firm and foundation, mentions the former president once on his campaign website, noting, “And President Trump was right to draw attention to bad trade deals.”

The Senate hopefuls may be treading carefully since Trump has criticized candidates who falsely claimed to have his backing.

“The last thing you want to do is stake your candidacy on being the Trump candidate in the race and watch him endorse somebody else,” one Arizona GOP consultant said. 

Democrats expect the Senate candidates to tie themselves to Trump, especially as he returns to the spotlight. 

“The only question that remains is: which candidate will go the farthest to sell out Arizonans to try and earn Trump’s support?” Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Sarah Guggenheimer said in a statement. 

While they aren’t initially mentioning Trump, the GOP Senate candidates aren’t disavowing him, either.

“What President Trump ran on in 2016 — restricting immigration, shoring up the economy for American workers, and resisting deranged cultural pushes from the left — is still extremely popular,” Masters said in a statement. “I was proud to support President Trump early in 2015 and to vote for him twice. And I don’t think I lose support by saying that.”

Mick McGuire, a retired major general of the Arizona National Guard, took a similar tack. 

“I am not worried about alienating voters by supporting policies that will end our current border crisis and continue President Trump’s economic legacy that saw improvements for all Americans, including record levels of employment for Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans,” he said in a statement.

Masters, McGuire and solar power executive Jim Lamon are expected to speak Saturday at the rally in Phoenix, where Trump is the featured speaker, according to their campaigns. The event is being hosted by Turning Point Action, a nonprofit affiliated with young conservatives group Turning Point USA.

Lamon campaign adviser Stephen Puetz said Lamon would welcome Trump’s support and “isn’t shying away” from the former president. Lamon’s campaign ran television ads in New Jersey, aimed at appealing to Trump while he was at his Bedminster golf club. 

“You want to make sure that the president is aware of your candidacy,” Puetz said of the New Jersey ad. 

Brnovich’s campaign did not respond to questions about whether he would also attend Saturday’s rally. The attorney general drew Trump’s ire over the controversial audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County. 

Trump said in a May statement that Brnovich was “always on television promoting himself, but never mentions the Crime of the Century, that took place during the 2020 Presidential Election.” Brnovich has said he will examine the results of the audit, and last month he told the Justice Department that his office “will not tolerate any effort to undermine or interfere with our State Senate’s audit.”  

The controversial audit has been a microcosm for the dilemma facing the Republicans running for Senate. They have generally supported the audit as they appeal to Trump and his supporters, but some Republicans in the state warn the audit could backfire in the general election, by depressing GOP turnout or turning off more moderate voters. 

“It’s a minefield,” said veteran Arizona strategist Chuck Coughlin, a former Republican who is now not registered with any party. 

Coughlin’s firm, Higher Ground, surveyed 500 voters in Maricopa County from July 6-7 and found that nearly 51 percent opposed the audit, 41 percent supported it, and 9 percent did not know or refused to answer. The survey was conducted by phone, and used both cellphones and landlines. 

Support for the audit split along party lines, with voters not tied to either of the two major parties, a key voting bloc, mostly opposing it. While 67 percent of Republicans backed the audit, just 9 percent of Democrats did so. Roughly 38 percent of voters not registered with any party supported the audit, while 37 percent of independents also supported it.

Tough race ahead

Arizona is a top target for Republicans, who need a net gain of just one seat to retake the Senate. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales counts it among eight battleground states in early race ratings.

Republicans in the state believe the primary field is set. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott told the Ruthless podcast that there is “still a chance” term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey could jump in the race, but Ducey has repeatedly said he does not plan to run. 

GOP Rep. Andy Biggs has expressed interest in the race, but some Republicans do not believe he will jump in, noting he could wield considerable influence as chairman of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, especially if Republicans win back the House next year. 

Coughlin said he has never seen such a wide-open primary field in his 30-year career in Arizona politics. Some Republicans said Brnovich has an early edge as a statewide-elected official, but Trump’s involvement in the primary remains a wildcard.

Republicans are concerned a contested primary, which won’t be decided until August 2022, could leave the eventual nominee with less than three months to focus solely on Kelly. 

Former GOP Sen. Martha McSally said that short runway was a problem in 2018, when she lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema after winning a contested Senate primary. Despite that loss, McSally was appointed to the state’s other Senate seat, left vacant by the death of Sen. John McCain, and then lost a race to Kelly last fall for the remainder of McCain’s term. 

As Republicans fight amongst themselves, Kelly can continue to raise millions for his campaign.

He raised $6 million in the second quarter and had $7.6 million in his campaign account as of June 30. Lamon raised $2.2 million, but that included a $2 million personal loan, and he reported $1.2 million in the bank. Brnovich and McGuire launched their runs in early June, and with less than a month before the quarter ended, they raised $438,000 and $426,000, respectively.

Masters has not yet filed a fundraising report since he just launched his campaign, but Thiel is bankrolling a super PAC to support his campaign.

The GOP candidates will also get some help from outside groups. One Nation, the nonprofit arm of the super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, has launched a $1 million digital campaign tying Kelly to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer

Republicans said keeping the focus on Kelly and the Biden administration is key to winning back McCain’s old seat. But that may be easier said than done, especially as Trump returns to the state and continues to make false claims about fraud in the 2020 election. 

“There’s about 10 other issues … that we would rather be talking about than relitigating 2020,” one GOP strategist involved in Senate races said. The strategist said the GOP candidates need to recognize that “they’re going to need to start using some more general-election oriented themes next year.” 

“We’ll see how much they’re able to do that,” the strategist said. 

This report has been updated to show Lamon speaking at Saturday’s event.

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