Though it was once widely projected as a Democratic Party "hold," the Arizona Senate seat occupied by Mark Kelly is now in serious jeopardy, as the latest polls show him in a virtual tie with GOP challenger Blake Masters.
In early September, Kelly led the RealClearPolitics poll average by 6 points. Now, despite being outspent by Democrats-- and abandoned by Mitch McConnell's super PAC -- Masters is within just 2.5 points.
However, given pollsters' well-established tendency to undercount GOP support, the race is likely even tighter than that. In the 2020 election, the RealClearPolitics average ended up overstating Biden's support in Arizona by 3.7%.
Applying that adjustment puts Masters ahead by aggregate 1.2%. Note, however, that 2020 Arizona Senate polls were even farther off the mark, overstating Democratic strength by 6.5%.
The polling trend has some Democratic political operatives sounding anonymous alarms:
“We believe this is a race that’s within a point in either direction, and there’s still a good chance that we would lose,” a person close to the Kelly campaign tells Politico. “And it’s important people understand that.”
As observed in other tight Senate races -- like Nevada's, where another Democratic-held seat is in great danger of flipping -- previously undecided Arizona voters are swinging toward the Republican down the stretch. That's especially true of a particular demographic, reports Politico:
One of the biggest shifts seen since this summer is older voters moving to Masters, said Chuck Coughlin, CEO of HighGround. Just after the Aug. 2 primary — a bitter Republican contest — voters 65 and older “were all over the map,” Coughlin said. In the firm’s most recent poll, many of those voters were committed to the GOP, which is consistent with historic precedent.
Over the same period, former NASA astronaut Kelly's lead among women has been slashed in half, from 20 to 10 points. Men favor Masters by 10.
“Are you ready for a United States Senator who will be fearless and bold and make Arizona great again, and send Mark Kelly back into outer space in search of his brain? Then you got to vote for Blake Masters!” @KariLake 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Qd3BN7yh4Y— Blake Masters for U.S. Senate Press (@MastersPress) October 23, 2022
The strength of feisty Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake may also provide a tailwind for Masters. “Between Lake’s rise in popularity and the woeful economic news lately, Blake is seeing his best chance to win just as voting is under way,” Arizona GOP strategist Barrett Marson tells The Wall Street Journal.
Surging prices are weighing on Democratic candidates everywhere, and perhaps especially so in Arizona: Phoenix had the country's highest inflation rate in September.
The Masters comeback is happening despite his being outspent by a two-to-one factor since the start of October. As his chances of victory become more apparent, though, Republican spending is now rising sharply. Over the last week, the GOP bought $3.2 million in ads compared to $2.7 million for the Democrats.
Back when his prospects looked dim, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund super PAC cancelled $18 million of planned ads in Arizona. However, PACs associated with Donald Trump and with billionaire Peter Thiel have picked up some of the slack. Masters, a venture capitalist, was previously chief operating officer of Thiel's investment firm and president of the Thiel Foundation.
The difference in the candidates' own campaign fundraising is jarring: Incumbent Kelly has a seven-fold lead, having raised more than $73 million, compared to under $10 million raised by Masters.
Despite that, Democrats find themselves with a vulnerable new front in their defense of their 50-seat-plus-the-vice-president hold on the Senate. As Democratic consultant Roy Herrera tells Politico, “There’s a very narrow path to victory for Democrats in Arizona.” It's getting narrower by the day.