Arizona at a Crossroads: On the Campaign Trail with Blake Masters
Every moment in politics happens only once. The next Barack Obama will not launch his national career with a keynote convention speech. The next Donald Trump will not face a liberal establishment that is overconfident and complacent. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.
Our current political moment is not easily defined. Extraordinary events keep happening: the Covid-19 Pandemic, the explosion of racial unrest, the fortification of the 2020 Presidential election, and the Russia-Ukraine war. Those who lead our institutions habitually respond to these events in ways that undermine the stability of our world. They focus more on messaging than on actual solutions. They have long-term goals, but those goals don’t include a better future for anyone except the small group of people who control and benefit from the system. No one in the political establishment seems to have any vision of a better world. It is a resignation to entropy that has bled into the body politic. Not even socialists dream of utopia anymore. The entropy of our time can be understood as the consequence of the erosion of freedom and unending assaults on dignity that have so thoroughly demoralized so much of our society.
The glimmer of hope is in the rising generation of new leaders. Leaders who believe that a better future is possible and who understand that there is vast untapped potential waiting to be unleashed if freedom and dignity are restored. They do not lead governments, businesses, or NGOs, they lead people. Many of them are ordinary people who had a call thrust on their lives. They include truckers whose fight for freedom shook the world, parents who are standing up to protect kids, internet creators who are breaking the corporate media’s monopoly over information, and yes, even people running for public office.
When Blake Masters released an online video announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate in Arizona, I sat up and took notice. It was not the kind of video that we would normally see from a Republican candidate. It was actually good. The aesthetics were understated and cinematic, featuring shots of Masters and his family in the Sonoran desert interspersed with interior shots from his family’s home. His message was clear and simple: America is sliding downward, young people today will be on average worse off than their parents were, but also that there is hope of restoration. Here was someone with a vision of a better future. Not a utopian one, but a future where Americans could live decently and afford to raise a family on a single income. Where communities would be safe and ancestral rights secure. It was a message that resounded, getting not just my attention but the attention of everyone on the online Right and many beyond.
I flew into Phoenix on the day of the first and only debate between incumbent Senator Mark Kelly and Blake Masters. On the plane I had been reading Zero to One, a book borne from notes Masters took in a course on startups taught by Peter Thiel at Stanford. I had put the book in the seat-back console in front of me and the man sitting next to me noticed Masters’ name on the cover. He asked me how it was. In the course of conversation I discovered that he worked in utilities management, helping to make sure that water keeps flowing through the taps of over seven-million Arizonans who live in one of the driest parts of the country. He belonged to that breed of baby boomers who play an outsized role in our communities, civic processes, and companies, and whose absences are sorely felt as their ranks dwindle. It’s a big part of why our elections have become so chaotic in recent years. Capable people from younger generations don’t sign up to run local elections the way that their elders did, so localities are stuck with using low-wage low-skill workers to operate elections. My seat mate didn’t know much about the Senate race. He was mostly focused on work and running the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. But he said he was leaning towards Masters because “anyone they spend that much on ads against is probably a good guy”. Senator Kelly’s campaign has outspent Masters 9 to 1 on the airwaves. As of the last FEC filing in late September, Kelly had raised over $75 million dollars while Masters had raised just under $10 million.
All of the car rental agencies in Phoenix were fully booked for the date of my arrival, another reporter I spoke with on the campaign trail told me he had resorted to renting a U-Haul truck. I resorted to asking on Twitter if anyone in Phoenix had a spare vehicle they wanted to rent out. In short order I was offered the use of a truck from a guy who used my Covid treatment protocol to help his grandparents get through the pandemic and wanted to return a favor. He even picked me up from the airport, making my first impression of Arizona and the people there a very positive one. It was a ’95 Ford Ranger, ideal for my purposes. I pointed it south and headed for the border.
Photography by Benjamin Braddock
The first campaign event of the first day was a “Breakfast with Blake” event at Nickel’s Diner in the unincorporated community of Rio Rico, just fifteen minutes north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The crowd had already filled the inside of the diner and had spilled into the area outside when I arrived. The turnout was impressive, especially given that Santa Cruz County hasn’t been carried by a Republican since 1988 and has a total population of less than fifty-thousand people, over 80% of which are Hispanic. One attendee told me that she couldn’t remember the last time that a Republican had bothered to come to Santa Cruz County except for Masters, who had already campaigned here several times.
Among those who showed up were a couple dozen young women from a local pro-life organization wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a slogan in Spanish, ranchers in cowboy hats, retirees, and a film crew shooting a Tucker Carlson Originals documentary. A local pastor opened the event with a prayer, the pledge of allegiance was said, and Masters launched into his stump speech. Once he was finished, he opened the floor for questions from the voters. The way he rattled off answers was like watching someone in a batting cage. How would he avoid the election being stolen? More eyes on the process. Abortion? Set a reasonable federal standard and let states decide if they want to go further. Vaccine mandate? Introduce a patient’s bill of rights that includes a provision that there will never be another federal vaccine mandate again. How to stop the cartels? Designate them as terrorist organizations and treat them accordingly — during this answer someone chimed in to say that the previous day he had picked up two truckloads of trash left by illegals in the desert.
When the event wrapped, I was introduced to a young lady, Isabel Flores, who for most of the day I had assumed was the campaign manager, and a talented one at that, because she had the charisma and confidence of a woman in charge. I found out later that she was volunteering for the campaign as a regional director. As I met more volunteers over the course of the trip, I continued to be impressed by their leadership qualities and intellect. They were not the typical ladder-climbing careerists that I usually run into on campaigns, but the kind of people you would only see on the campaigns of someone like Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, or Barry Goldwater.
The next stop on the itinerary was the border town of Nogales, which straddles the border of Arizona and Mexico. Every October, thousands of Mexican pilgrims set out on a journey through the Sonoran desert from Nogales to the shrine of San Francisco Xavier in Magdalena, which lies sixty miles to the south. The purpose of the journey is to carry a “manda” — a vow to Saint Francisco — in return for spiritual betterment or some favor from the saint, like the healing of a loved one. Our trip to Nogales was to see a different kind of pilgrimage, one going in the opposite direction from Magdalena — into El Norte, the United States. Isabel directed us to the home of her grandmother, a house perched on a hill overlooking the border wall, which ran straight through Nogales with only a parallel street on either side forming any kind of discontinuity between the American and Mexican sections of town.
While Blake was in a side room doing a radio interview, I sat in the living room and visited with Isabel’s grandmother and cousin. Through the picture window, I had a full view of the border and the Mexican side of Nogales. At times, illegal immigrants scale the wall right there in the middle of town. I was told that it’s not unusual to find illegals out in the garage or cutting through the yard to evade border patrol. People on the border talk very matter of factly about this state of affairs, the way mountain people mention seeing a bear or wildcat. Two days after our trip to Nogales, Customs and Border Patrol found 413,000 fentanyl pills at the Nogales port of entry, 44,000 of which were the new “rainbow” variety which is increasingly being mistaken for Molly, with deadly consequences.
The top issue on most people’s minds in Nogales still seemed to be the same as everywhere else in America: the economy and inflation. Communities along our southern border are pretty similar to the rest of rural and small town America when it comes to jobs and opportunity in an information economy. The unemployment and poverty rates in these areas are significantly above the national and state averages and the per-capita income is about $21,000.
The third stop of the day was a lunch with local business leaders. There was a representative from the maquiladora industry there to discuss trade issues — maquilas and cross-border trade are responsible for the lions share of jobs in the area on both sides of the border. There was also a representative of a mining company there to talk about the 2,500 new jobs and $3 billion in investment coming to Santa Cruz County from the Hermosa Project, which would be the largest zinc mine in the world and the largest domestic producer of manganese, both of which are important inputs into lithium-ion batteries. If the government allows the manganese to be smelted on the American side of the border, Arizona would likely get the investment and jobs. But otherwise, the smelting would be done just across the border in Mexico. Masters seemed to light up when discussing these practical issues facing industry. Given his background in venture capital, I think the opportunity to talk shop made for a refreshing break from normal campaign messaging.
A trip out to the border had been planned for that afternoon, but a rainstorm came up. Getting rained out in the middle of a desert is a new one for me. I headed back to Tucson, making an impromptu stop at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita. The museum is located at an old Titan II ICBM missile silo which is open for tours. Joining up with the last group of the day, we walked through the process for what would happen if the order to launch a nuclear attack was handed down from the President. The nice lady who was guiding the tour let me turn the launch key. Nothing happened though. After that came another impromptu stop at Mission San Xavier del Bac, the oldest European structure in Arizona. Parishioners were just leaving mass and the clouds were breaking for sunset. The juxtaposition of the nuclear missile silo and the old church just a few miles apart left me with an unsettled feeling. I went on to Tucson and did my best to bury that feeling under a large platter of Mexican food.
Photography by Benjamin Braddock
The campaign activities on Saturday, the second day, were closed press, so I met up with some local conservatives from around Tucson to get a sense of what they thought about the border and the campaign. I didn’t find that there was much interest in militarizing the border, because that would mean militarization of their own communities. It was pointed out to me that illegals still find ways over, under, through, or around the wall — and most come through the front door anyway by declaring asylum at the ports of entry, also where most of the drugs are trafficked in. For border region conservatives, the immigration issues to tackle are asylum laws, birthright citizenship, and the NGOs that facilitate human trafficking. These people are more thoughtful about the situation, understanding that supply-side interventions only do so much and the problem will continue unless something is done to seriously curb the demand for drugs and human trafficking.
As for the campaign, over a plate of mountain oysters I talked to the smartest guy I know on Arizona politics. The essential problem for Masters in some rural areas in southern Arizona is that a lot of people take Mark Kelly’s pretensions at being a moderate at face value. It also helps that he’s the husband of Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman whose career was cut short by a schizophrenic pothead who shot her in the head in an attempted assassination. There is a lot of goodwill towards Giffords among her former constituents, not just because of the assassination attempt, but because they remember her as someone who worked hard to deliver for her district.
Sunday afternoon found myself and a few thousand other people standing on a bare patch of desert in Mesa. The Big Man had come to do one of his Big Rallies under the Arizona sun. It was the Trump endorsements that had fueled the primary victories of Blake Masters and Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor. Now he was back to give them some more gas for the general election. I had just gotten through the gates when Masters came in with his family and team. He strode through the crowd like Caesar returning from Gaul, shaking hands and leaning in for selfies along the way. The program was just getting underway, with Kash Patel and Ric Grenell kicking off a two-man warm-up routine. The Arizona sun was warming up the event too — the cool breeze from the morning had turned into a hot dry desert wind.
MAGA meets Burning Man — as the rally wound through the long list of warmup speakers, it began to take on a surreal dream-like quality. It was dehydration kicking in. The only water I saw in the press pen was some plastic bottled municipal water that had sat out in the sun and was rapidly approaching the boiling point. Some of the rallygoers started going down from the heat, which turned the event into a sort of collective survival experience where strangers were looking out for and helping one another, along with security and EMS staff who were on their A-game.
It was finally Blake Masters’ turn to speak. The opening gongs of the Top Gun theme song rang out. The walk-up music a candidate chooses speaks volumes about their mood and how they view their campaign. The selection of this cinematic score immediately called to mind the energy of the Top Gun franchise, which centers on a maverick fighter who bucks the establishment and pushes the limits in order to achieve success of the mission. That theme continued to carry through in Masters’ speech. In other key Masters speeches, he had seemed almost overly prepared and polished. In this speech, he was a man on fire, hitting the core themes of his message with the spontaneous rhetorical power of a pentecostal preacher. He touched on crime, inflation, and the poisoning of America’s youth not with canned lines, but with a sense of deep-felt moral outrage that the American people were being failed by their government. It was like watching a racehorse who had been hooked up to a plow finally breaking loose and galloping away. People I talked to in the crowd were impressed, one man I spoke to summed up his impression in this way, “I knew he was smart, I didn’t know he was charismatic too.”
Kari Lake was next, and she quickly made apparent why she has become a rising star who is generating buzz about a potential run on a national ticket before even being elected to office. Her decades of experience as an anchorwoman have served her well in being able to connect with people and communicate her message in a compelling way. Conservative proposals are often framed in a way that make them appear far more extreme than they actually are. One of Lake’s strengths is framing her proposals instead as mainstream consensus positions that are pragmatic rather than ideological.
After Lake finished there was a long lull as the crowd waited for Trump. The campaign soundtrack played through the full playlist of Elton John, Village People, Italian opera, and songs from the Broadway production Cats. Then we went through the full soundtrack again. When Tiny Dancer came on, I turned to a bored reporter next to me and launched into the monologue “She just died? I didn’t know that you’re telling me now for the first time.” He just stared blankly back as if I were a lunatic. Someone had said that Trump was waiting for golden hour, which I took as a joke, but sure enough, when the lighting was just right he appeared.
It was a long Trump speech, with many of the bits that are old standbys at this point. I had often seen him point to the cameras and press pool and mention how the fake news media wouldn’t turn the cameras around to show the crowd behind the press risers, but it was my first time on the receiving end of this bit. Thousands of people turned towards us and booed. It was a pretty funny experience — the camera crews on the risers were either from Trump-friendly outlets like Right Side Broadcasting Network and OANN or local news stations like Fox 10 Phoenix. Most of the hated liberal media outlets that the crowd imagined that they were jeering either hadn’t bothered to show up or had already left. One of the more entertaining moments was when Trump paused the speech to play a compilation of video memes on the jumbotrons poking fun at Biden gaffes. Trump had probably watched the memes many times already but he was laughing hard at them nonetheless. He also brought other people up on stage at points throughout the speech, Blake Masters and Kari Lake individually came up to speak alongside him, and in a touching moment of the evening, the parents of Kayla Mueller came up on stage to be honored by the President.
The next day, I talked to voters before a joint town hall appearance attended by Blake Masters and Kari Lake. One couple, Chuck and Deb Quinn, had first saw Masters on Tucker Carlson’s show early in the primary. They had been planning a move to Arizona, and Chuck said his first investment in the state before even moving there was a donation to the Masters campaign. I talked to Mary Ann Mendoza, an angel mom whose son was killed by an illegal immigrant in 2014 and who is now running for a seat in the legislature. She said “We’ve had enough fence-sitters, we finally have a team in Arizona that will do what we campaign on.” That’s was the general mood of Arizona Republicans that I found. There is a real sense that this is a make or break election for the state, but also an optimism that this slate of candidates represents a decisive shift towards conservative governance.
On the last day of the trip, I sat down with Blake Masters to talk about the campaign. He expressed confidence that he had the momentum to achieve an underdog victory. He had gotten into the race in large part because he saw how out of touch with the people the politicians have become. I think he has now learned by his experience with running for office why that is. Candidates like Masters who are interested in new or unconventional ideas are sorely needed in a political system that has run out of ideas and is bound by conventional thinking. But when people say things that are unconventional, the messaging apparatus of those in power mischaracterize those statements to distort the public’s perception of reality and frighten them. So we are left with a system that favors people who never say anything new or interesting. And the people who can manage to never say anything new or interesting are people by nature who lack the curiosity it takes to be in touch with the people.
“I’m not going to sit in the Senate until I look like Joe Biden,” he told me. Masters is not seeking a lifelong career in politics. He has a specific mission, to steer America away from its path of decline. The responsibility of that mission weighs visibly on him when he talks about people he’s met on the campaign trail who have suffered tremendously because of failed leadership. Leadership is not about one person doing everything, it is about inspiring many people to do good and necessary things. In that respect, Masters is already providing leadership to his generation by showing that there are still Davids taking on Goliaths, and that sometimes a flipped coin lands on its edge.