PHOENIX – An interviewer asked Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters to pick a “subversive thinker" whom people should know more about.
Masters gave it some thought and came up with a risky response for someone running for elected office.
He picked the Unabomber.
“I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this,” Masters responded. “How about, like, Theodore Kaczynski?”
Masters was careful to point out he doesn’t condone the bombings that killed three people and injured dozens between 1978 and 1995 and terrorized the nation until Kaczynski’s arrest in 1996. But Master's March interview on an obscure podcast is emblematic of the provocative style that has helped the 35-year-old first-time candidate connect with the segment of Republican primary voters eager to confront Democrats, technology companies and other enemies of the right in the midterm elections.
Boosted by Donald Trump’s endorsement, Masters is gobbling up most of the attention in a primary defined above all else by fealty to the former president. The winner of Tuesday's election will take on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, one of the GOP’s top targets.
The primary does not fit easily into the Trump vs. GOP establishment pattern that has defined so many contests this year, including the race for Arizona governor. All the major candidates aggressively sought Trump's imprimatur and have not been shy about advancing his false claims of election fraud from the 2020 presidential election. GOP Gov. Doug Ducey declined to run and the party’s mainstream has not coalesced around any particular candidate.
Masters faces businessman Jim Lamon, who founded and sold a solar energy company, and Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who started the race as the best-known candidate but has been weighed down by fierce criticism from Trump. Retired Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, the former head of the Arizona National Guard, and Justin Olson, a former lawmaker and member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, have struggled to gain traction.
As for the Unabomber, Masters said he doesn't endorse all of Kaczynski's views, but “there's a lot of insight there.” Kaczynski's 35,000-word manifesto, which blames technological progress for societal ills, has found a loyal following.
“He had a lot to say about the political left, about how they all have inferiority complexes and fundamentally hate anything like goodness, truth, beauty, justice," Masters said.
Despite a venture capital career tied closely with Silicon Valley startups, Masters is running as a critic of Big Tech and is calling for regulating social media giants such as Facebook, which he says is unfair to conservatives.
It's an interesting position for a candidate who owes virtually his entire professional career to Facebook's first investor, billionaire Peter Thiel. Masters took a class from Thiel as a Stanford law student and formed an enduring bond. They wrote a book together, Masters worked for Thiel's investment firm and foundation, and the billionaire is now bankrolling Masters' run for Senate through a super political action committee to which he's so far contributed $15 million.
Trump last week called Masters “a brilliant mind who truly supports the MAGA movement and America First." MAGA refers to Trump's “Make America Great Again” theme.
Masters was once a strident libertarian whose online posts as a college student have been fodder for his rivals. He called for unrestricted immigration and wrote that “the U.S. hasn’t been involved in a just war in over 140 years,” a period that notably excludes World War II. Masters later told Jewish Insider, which first reported on the comments, that he “went too far.” He's been critical of his rivals and the media for dwelling on his writings as a teenager.
More recently, he’s an immigration hard-liner who espouses the “ great replacement theory,” accusing Democrats of trying to flood the nation with millions of immigrants “to change the demographics of our country.” He called Democratic leaders “psychopaths” and posed with a rifle declaring “this is designed to kill people,” saying the Second Amendment is not about hunting.
Trump's support has been “great for my campaign,” Masters said, and he doesn't plan to play down the endorsement if he's nominated.
“Do you know how many independents I meet who say, like, ‘We’re sorry, we voted for Biden. Please bring back the mean tweets because we want $2 gas, we want a border,’” Masters said.
After trying hard but failing to get the Trump endorsement, Lamon says the former president got it wrong in Arizona. At a recent campaign stop in Tempe, he claimed Trump endorsed Masters because of business ties to Thiel.
“All of these writings Masters did about open borders, open free drug trade and blah, blah, blah — I don’t think President Trump knew that when he endorsed," Lamon told a woman who wanted to know why Trump wasn't supporting him. He later said he wasn't worried about alienating the former president or his supporters, pointing to Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania as another example of Trump making a bad endorsement of a Republican Senate candidate.
“How's Oz working out for us? Oz has got a boatload of experience compared to Masters," Lamon said in an interview, noting polls that show Oz trailing Democrat John Fetterman.
Lamon, an Army veteran, is drawing from the fortune he built over a career in the energy sector.
“He would let the Border Patrol do their job,” said Bob Wallace, a 68-year-old retiree from Mesa, who is supporting Lamon. "Not play nursemaid to thousands and thousands of illegals. He would rather have them do their job, which is stopping them at the border."
Brnovich, in his second term as attorney general, is the only major candidate with experience in elected office. But he's seen his star fade since Trump soured on him because he did not deliver what Trump wanted most — indictments of election officials who he claims, without any evidence, illegally deprived him of a second term as president.
Brnovich initially vouched for the integrity of the 2020 election and sat alongside the governor and secretary of state as they certified the election results. More recently, he says he's looking into discredited allegations of irregularities in Maricopa County.
At one recent debate, Brnovich was repeatedly heckled by the crowd as he tried to speak.
“Look, I’m respecting you, please respect me and let me finish my answer,” he eventually clapped back. “If the truth hurts, then just shut the hell up, all right? Let me just talk."
Kelly will be a formidable opponent for whoever emerges from the GOP primary. A former astronaut and Navy pilot, Kelly is the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt. He has worked to build a profile as a moderate since he was elected in a 2020 special election to finish the term of the late Republican Sen. John McCain,
Kelly is a fundraising powerhouse and raised $52 million through the end of June for what is likely to be one of the most expensive campaigns in the country this year, with half of it still in his bank account. He's using that fortune to bolster his image with a barrage of positive television ads as the Republicans remain focused on one another.
Republicans, meanwhile, have struggled mightily with fundraising. The candidates combined have raised less than half of Kelly's haul, with much of that money coming from Lamon himself.