Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly won his bid for re-election on Friday in the crucial swing state of Arizona, defeating Republican venture capitalist Blake Masters to put his party one victory away from clinching control of the chamber for the next two years of Joe Biden’s presidency.
With Vice-President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, Democrats can retain control of the Senate by winning either the Nevada race, which remains too early to call, or next month’s run-off in Georgia. Republicans must now win both of those races to take the majority.
The Arizona race is one of a handful of contests that Republicans targeted in their bid to take control of the 50-50 Senate. It was a test of the inroads that Kelly and other Democrats have made in a state once reliably dominated by the Republican Party. Kelly’s victory suggests Democratic success in Arizona was not an aberration during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Other Arizona contests, including the closely watched race for governor between Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Kari Lake, were too early to call Friday night.
Kelly focused on abortion rights, lowering drug prices
Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who’s flown in space four times, is married to former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who inspired the nation with her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head during an assassination attempt in 2011 that killed six people and injured 13. Kelly and Giffords went on to co-found a gun safety advocacy group.
Kelly’s victory in a 2020 special election spurred by the death of Republican Sen. John McCain gave Democrats both of Arizona’s Senate seats for the first time in 70 years. The shift was propelled by the state’s fast-changing demographics and the unpopularity of Trump.
Kelly’s 2022 campaign largely focused on his support for abortion rights, protecting Social Security, lowering drug prices and ensuring a stable water supply in the midst of a drought, which has curtailed Arizona’s cut of Colorado River water.
With Biden struggling with low approval ratings, Kelly distanced himself from the president, particularly on border security, and played down his Democratic affiliation amid angst about the state of the economy.
He also styled himself as an independent willing to buck his party, in the style of McCain.
Masters, an acolyte of billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, tried to penetrate Kelly’s independent image, aligning him with Biden’s failure to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and tamp down on rampant inflation.
Masters promoted racist theory
Masters endeared himself to many Republican primary voters with his penchant for provocation and contrarian thinking. He called for privatizing Social Security, took a hardline stance against abortion and promoted a racist theory popular with white nationalists that Democrats are seeking to use immigration to replace white people in the United States.
But after emerging bruised from a contentious primary, Masters struggled to raise money and was put on the defensive over his controversial positions.
He earned Trump’s endorsement after claiming “Trump won in 2020,” but under pressure during a debate last month, he acknowledged he hasn’t seen evidence that the last presidential election was rigged. He later doubled down on the false claim that Trump won.
After the primary, he scrubbed some of his more controversial positions from his website, but it wasn’t enough for the moderate swing voters who decided the election.
Republicans inch closer to House majority
In the fight for control of the House of Representatives, Republicans were inching closer to becoming the majority and ending four years of rule by Biden’s Democrats. That would give Republicans veto power over Biden’s legislative agenda and allow them to launch potentially damaging investigations into his administration.
Republicans had secured at least 211 of the 218 House seats they need for a majority, Edison Research projected late on Thursday, while Democrats had won 203. Many of the races where winners have not yet been determined are in Arizona, California and Washington state.
Despite the real possibility that they may lose the House, Democrats have still cheered their success in curbing their predicted losses after they galvanized voters angry over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.
The Republican House leader, Kevin McCarthy, has already announced his intention to run for Speaker if Republicans take over, an outcome he has described as inevitable.
It is unclear whether a challenger to McCarthy will emerge, but some of the most conservative House Republicans have expressed doubts that he has enough votes yet to become Speaker, the most powerful official in the House.
Meanwhile, Republican infighting in the Senate broke into the open on Friday as senators urged the postponement of a Wednesday leadership election so that they have time to discuss why the party did not fare better on Tuesday.
Mitch McConnell is hoping to continue as Republican leader, despite sniping from Trump and other conservatives.
Some of Trump’s most high-profile endorsed candidates lost pivotal races on Tuesday, marring his status as Republican kingmaker and leading several Republicans to blame his divisive brand for the party’s disappointing performance.
The outcome may increase the chances that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who routed his Democratic challenger on Tuesday, will opt to challenge Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination.
While Trump has not officially launched a third White House campaign, the former president has strongly suggested he will do so and is planning a “special announcement” at his Florida club on Tuesday.
Trump lambasted DeSantis in a statement on Thursday, taking credit for the governor’s political rise, while attacking critics on his social media site, Truth Social.