Politics

Four Eye-Popping Moments from Arizona GOP Senate Debate

Attorney General Mark Brnovich
Attorney General Mark Brnovich Gage Skidmore
An energy tycoon, a billionaire-backed populist, Arizona’s attorney general head the list of candidates vying for the Republican nomination in this year’s U.S. Senate race.

And if the antics at a GOP debate on Thursday were any indication, they all want to push the seat far to the right.

An older — but energized — crowd of more than a thousand packed into the Hyatt Regency in downtown Phoenix to attend the debate, cheering and heckling their favorites. Incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly is up for re-election this year, and in November will face one of the five candidates who took the stage on Thursday.

When Kelly won his Senate seat in 2020, beating out incumbent Republican Martha McSally, it was the first time Arizona sent two Democrats to the Senate in decades. So this time around, the race is again likely to be extremely competitive. On August 2, the primary election will decide who Kelly’s GOP challenger will be.

The GOP candidates are: Mark Brnovich, currently Arizona’s top prosecutor, who has taken a sharp turn to the right in recent months; Jim Lamon, a wealthy businessman who founded DEPCOM Power, a solar company, and who has poured millions into his own campaign; Blake Masters, a venture capitalist from Tucson who is backed by former president Donald Trump and bankrolled by Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal.

Justin Olson, a former Arizona lawmaker, and Mick McGuire, the former adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard, are also seeking the Republican nomination.

The five gathered Thursday night for the first time at an event hosted by FreedomWorks, a national conservative advocacy group.

Here’s a breakdown of the craziest — and most revealing — moments of the debate:

Mark Brnovich is heckled by an angry crowd over his failure to prosecute supposed “election fraud” and retorts: "Shut the hell up."

In the months since his campaign launched, Brnovich, currently serving as Arizona’s attorney general, has become a Fox News regular, deployed dog whistles about the border, and generally shifted to the right. He even conducted a months-long probe into the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County (which turned up little of substance, and which was blasted by the county as inaccurate).

Despite all this, Brnovich proved an easy target on Thursday for his opponents onstage. “I believe that the chief law enforcement officer in the state has reasonable suspicion to open a criminal investigation into [the 2020 election],” McGuire said as the conversation turned to election integrity.

“There is someone on this stage that can act on that,” McGuire added. Until then, Brnovich could not “expect us to take you seriously.” Others on stage voiced their approval.

The crowd heckled Brnovich as he stood to defend himself. “I know people are upset,” he said, after reeling off the various election-related court cases his office has taken on. “But we’re conservatives. The constitution matters.” When this plea didn’t work, he changed his tone: “When the truth hurts, just shut the hell up, all right?”

Brnovich's campaign provided a statement to New Times about his performance at the debate that did not touch on the election. "Last night we saw the difference between talk and action," the statement read, saying that Brnovich had shown his record of "fighting to secure our southern border" and "protecting our children against woke ideology."

Jim Lamon rants about outsourcing manufacturing to China … despite his plentiful business dealings in China.

After discussion of the border, social security, and election issues, the conversation turned to China. Asked about whether he would support free trade with the country, Lamon blasted China, alongside the other candidates: “China is the enemy of the United States of America,” he said, saying that in the course of building his massive solar business — which he sold shortly before his campaign — he had not outsourced jobs.

But — as his opponents have pointed out — Lamon’s solar business had a history of lucrative dealings with China. As Phoenix New Times reported this month, Lamon imported hundreds of shipments from state-owned Chinese companies. He has countered criticisms from his opponents about these dealings, playing them off as a small fraction of the business.

It’s certainly true that, as Lamon also has said, Chinese parts are fairly ubiquitous in solar and electronics manufacturing. But it certainly does undermine Lamon’s claims that he “has the credentials” to oppose China’s influence in the U.S. economy.

His remarks on China also veered into the extreme — saying the country was “buying this country,” “buying all politicians,” and that the U.S. should revoke hundreds of thousands of visas for Chinese people living here. “They do not need to be in this country,” he said, to applause.

Masters calls for President Joe Biden to be impeached over “invasion” at the border.

Throughout the debate, candidates did not hesitate to grandstand about border issues — each rushing to describe their plans for increasing deportations and locking down the border. McGuire, the former National Guard general, compared the situation to a leak that needed to be cleaned up with a mop on multiple occasions. For Arizona’s conservatives, the focus — and use of dog whistles — is hardly new.

Masters, though, took perhaps the most extreme approach. “This is an invasion,” he said. “Joe Biden is a criminal for what he has done at the border.” He promised that Biden would be impeached for “high crimes” relating to border enforcement, without giving specifics. “I will vote to convict,” Masters said.
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Blake Masters is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona.
Gage Skidmore
Masters called for the size of border patrol to be tripled. It was one of various far-right border policies proposed during the discussion of immigration. Olson advocated for no amnesty, under any circumstances, for undocumented immigrants. McGuire said he would seek a $6 billion dollar investment into completing Trump’s border wall in Arizona. And Lamon called for jail time for employers who don’t verify their workers’ immigration status.

Lamon brags about being a fake elector

Although Lamon lost out on an endorsement from the former president — who is supporting Masters in the race — he touted his support Thursday for Trump and the Arizona Senate’s partisan audit. One piece of evidence Lamon used: He had signed on as one of the “alternate electors” that hoped to pass Arizona’s electoral votes to Trump instead of Biden in 2020.

“Why can you trust me on election integrity? Well, in 2020, you gave me the honor of being an elector for the state of Arizona for President Trump,” Lamon told the crowd. “I took that duty very seriously.”

The alternate elector efforts are now under investigation by the House select committee investigating the January 6 plot. Ongoing public hearings on what occurred have revealed the extent of this scheme and the pressure campaign by Trump to orchestrate the alternate electors. One congressional aide even tried to hand off the false electors to Vice President Mike Pence prior to the election certification, new text messages revealed this week.

In Arizona, participation in this scheme is hardly a liability — now nearly two years after Trump’s loss. Lamon drew applause from the crowd as he explained his role as an elector and his funding for Arizona’s controversial ballot review. “The only person up here guys who took action to get that done was myself,” Lamon said.
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Jim Lamon (left) and Blake Masters were among the candidates at the Arizona GOP Senate primary debate on Thursday.
YouTube

Neither Lamon nor Masters replied to inquiries from New Times by midday Friday.

After all of this: Who was the winner of the debate on Thursday? A straw poll taken by 900 attendees before and after sheds some light on where the candidates stand — though, of course, the crowd who turned up for the event might not be representative of voters.

In both polls — before and after the debate — Masters had a strong lead, polling at 36 percent beforehand and falling to 33 percent afterward. Lamon came in second by a fairly slim margin, polling at 27 percent and 26 percent. McGuire polled at 19 percent and 16 percent respectively, while Brnovich finished fourth at 16 percent and 15 percent.

Olson was the only candidate whose support increased over the course of the debate; his numbers jumped from 2 percent to 10 percent by the end of the night.

Polls this January and April by the electorate by OH Predictive Insights, a Phoenix-based market researcher, showed Lamon ahead of Masters, with Brnovich in second. However, one June survey by Trafalgar Group, a national pollster, gave Masters a strong lead over Brnovich by 5 percentage points and Lamon by 12.

With just over a month before the primary, though, there's still time for things to change.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk