Blake Masters wants to take back Arizona

The Thiel Capital COO and self-described 'anti-progressive' wants the chance to take on Sen. Mark Kelly

Even by the fun-house standards of Republican politics in the swing state of Arizona — which has produced a rather colorful stream of election denialists, Nazi analogists and other far-right extremists who have gained notoriety in recent years — Blake Masters cuts an unusual profile.

The GOP Senate candidate and Peter Thiel protegé casts himself as a former libertarian who turned to conservatism after establishing what he describes as an early intellectual and emotional basis for former President Donald Trump’s brash neo-populist agenda.

And on many red-meat conservative fixations, Masters comes off as a relatively standard-issue Trump loyalist, warning repeatedly of the dangers of lax immigration policies, the Chinese Communist Party and Big Tech censorship. He has frequently denounced critical race theory as “anti-white racism.”

Masters, 35, has turned heads for other reasons, thanks in large part to a series of provocative campaign ads that have drawn national attention. During one notable spot, the chief operating officer of Thiel Capital, speaking over a foreboding soundtrack, brandished a short-barreled rifle “designed to kill people” — a demonstration of his gun-rights bona fides. Elsewhere, he falsely declared that “Trump won in 2020” and has said that Americans “should be able to raise a family on one single income.”

“Most politicians, left or right, don’t really talk that way,” Masters, a self-described “anti-progressive,” said in an interview with Jewish Insider in late January. “I think I just really stand out,” he added, with characteristic bluster. “I’m the only one who’s not boring. I’m the only one who really, I think, understands the stakes.”

As he sees it, the future is grim. “I look around and I see us losing the country,” Masters declared, turning his attention to what he argues President Joe Biden’s  “far-left, progressive administration has done” over the past year or so. “It’s startling: open borders, supply shocks, inflation, you know, all sorts of cultural craziness.”

Such criticism isn’t reserved exclusively for the opposition. Masters also holds a withering view of Republican leadership, with, as be made sure to note, the “huge exception” of Trump. “Zooming out even further, it’s not just the last year — it’s the last few decades,” Masters argued, voicing disdain for “a bipartisan elite” that, he believes, has compromised American interests at home and abroad. “We’ve off-shored our middle class, and, I mean, America is just not on track.”

Masters, who fits into an emerging category of right-wing activists loosely categorized as “national conservatives,” is one of several Republicans now competing in the wide-open August primary, whose victor will face off against Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) this fall. The former astronaut and retired Navy captain, 58, is now seeking a full term in the upper chamber following his decisive victory over former Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) in a 2020 special election, when he helped turn Arizona’s two Senate seats blue for the first time in more than six decades.

From a fundraising perspective, Kelly is well-positioned as he runs unopposed in the Democratic primary. He entered the new year with just under $19 million on hand, far outpacing the well-heeled Republican field. But even with his sizable war chest, elections forecasters have suggested the junior senator is particularly vulnerable this cycle as he heads into an election year that is expected to be favorable for Republican candidates.

Still, the GOP roster remains somewhat in flux, with no clear favorite yet to emerge. Despite overtures from GOP leaders who had tried to recruit him, Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, confirmed last week that he would not run for Senate, sparing Kelly what would likely have been a competitive general-election matchup. Masters is viewed as one of three top Republican contenders all jockeying for support with outlandish overtures to Trump’s base if not the former president himself, who hasn’t yet made an endorsement.

Last month, for instance, the energy executive Jim Lamon released a TV ad depicting himself in a Western-style shootout with such high-profile Democrats as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Biden and Kelly, the latter of whom is a gun-control advocate whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), survived an assassination attempt in 2012. 

 “I don’t even feel like I’m competing with my primary election opponents,” he said, “because they’re just unable to talk about some of the thornier issues and they’re just dealing in bullet points while I’m actually like, ‘Hey, I’m a real guy with real ideas, and here’s what I think.’”

Even Mark Brnovich, Arizona’s more establishment-minded attorney general — who has led polling on the race and has acknowledged Trump’s defeat in 2020 — shared a video in which he enthusiastically twirled a pair of nunchucks while standing on a roof.

Masters, who seems to enjoy prodding at what he views as a tedious status quo, suggested that his opponents are out of touch with the zeitgeist. “I’m 20 or 30 years younger than all of them, which I think is interesting,” he told JI. “It’s not itself a qualification, but it means I have a different perspective. I’ve been around long enough and have been paying attention to, I think, have gotten a beat on what’s going wrong.”

The first-time candidate claims his campaign is gaining traction among a growing number of voters across the state who, he says, are eager to see a “changing of the guard.”

Independent polling suggests otherwise, at least at the moment. But experts speculated that the numbers may shift in the coming months. “He’s suffering, like most first-time folks running, especially in a statewide contest, from a lack of name ID,” Mike Noble, chief of research at OH Predictive Insights, a nonpartisan polling firm in Phoenix, said of Masters. For now, “he’s kind of just in the middle of the pack,” Noble added. “However, I think there’s a lot of potential.”

With a large number of voters still undecided, Noble said that even a wildcard candidate like Masters could still consolidate support, not least because of the strong fundraising numbers he has posted in consecutive quarters. 

Since entering the race last July, Masters has pulled in just under $2.6 million in individual campaign contributions — including some donations that came through the sale of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. He began the most recent quarter with a cash advantage of $1.8 million. Most notably, his haul is buoyed by a major super PAC donation of $10 million from the elusive right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel, whom Masters counts as a boss and mentor. Combined, those factors indicate that Masters is, according to Noble, “someone to watch in the race.”

Daniel Scarpinato, a partner at Ascent Media Agency who until last fall served as Ducey’s chief of staff, expressed a similar view of Masters’ prospects. “He entered really as an unknown, and I think that he has impressed a lot of folks with his ability to pull together a campaign that does seem to have a lot of support on the ground,” Scarpinato told JI in an interview. “He’s been pretty creative in doing some things to cut through and be different.”

Not unpredictably, Masters offered an even more generous assessment of his candidacy in conversation with JI. “I don’t even feel like I’m competing with my primary election opponents,” he said, “because they’re just unable to talk about some of the thornier issues and they’re just dealing in bullet points while I’m actually like, ‘Hey, I’m a real guy with real ideas, and here’s what I think.’”

The political newcomer said his approach is in keeping with the lessons from Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, a book he co-authored with Thiel in 2014. “That’s sort of what I would say is the Zero to One mentality,” he explained. “You’ve got to do something different and hope it works. Maybe the voters don’t buy it, but I actually think they do because they can tell it’s authentic.”

Notwithstanding such confidence, political observers in the Grand Canyon State suggested in interviews with JI that Masters’ views on some key issues remain somewhat inscrutable, while his values-driven messaging has also obscured what can seem like a lack of depth or clarity on matters of substance, particularly in the foreign policy realm.

Last week, Masters posted a video to his Twitter feed in which he offered his take on the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Describing the war as “super dangerous,” Masters said it was difficult “to tell what’s going on beyond that” because, he alleged, the U.S. has no “real media” and “so much of what you see is propaganda and emotionalism all the way down.”

While Masters went on to condemn Russia’s invasion as “wrong” — and called for sanctions in a separate post — he also argued that the country “is a nuclear power with its own distinct interests.” There was, he suggested, “no reason to provoke them over NATO expansion and Bush-era regime change mania.” 

His approach struck something of a precarious balance between an establishment Republican wing that is highly critical of Russia’s actions and a Trumpian subset of the party that is more sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, with whom Masters is aligned on a range of issues.

The relative urgency of Masters’ appraisal was also in tension with comments from late January, when Masters told Axios that “the Ukrainian border isn’t even in the top 20” of the issues “our politicians should prioritize,” which he summarized as election integrity, violent crime and failing schools, among other things.

Such remarks point more broadly to what Masters describes as a “non-interventionist” approach to foreign policy matters, which, he acknowledges, has raised some questions among Jewish leaders over his approach to Israel and American aid.

“The Jewish people I’ve spoken with, you know, in these contexts, I think they’re very curious about my candidacy,” Masters told JI. “When they hear that I’m non-interventionist, they ask questions, like, am I more the libertarian that won’t help Israel at all?”

“It’s more Israel’s business to sort of tell us, like, is that tolerable?” Masters said. “Will that actually work? I’m not an expert here, but I guess in principle, I’m open to it, and in practice, it’s just like, I feel like I’ve grown up watching Israel try, in good faith, to coexist, and it’s always: Nope.”

The answer, he says, is no. “My model here is President Trump,” Masters explained. “It’s like, be wise about entangling, never-ending, dumb conflicts, but again, I think there’s a way to do that where you’re actually strong, not weak, where you’re actually assertive, not passive, and where you’re actually pro-Israel, and not just, like, pretending that Israel is just one of many countries in the world, because I think it’s different and special, and we have a special relationship.”

Masters said he visited Israel in 1998 on a week-long business trip with his father, who was then working in the internet telecommunications field. Heading home, he recalled that the airport security officials had, upon learning he had taken a bus tour through the West Bank, asked that Masters boot up his laptop and play a game of solitaire as proof that he was not smuggling a secret weapon onto the plane. The experience, he said, was instructive.

“You’re in a small country, a tough neighborhood, you know, all these other countries are not so sure about Israel, and to see a real concern for security and a respect for the process was very interesting,” he recalled. “That stuck with me.”

Like some other high-profile Republican Senate candidates who are seeking office this cycle, Masters expressed ambivalence about the feasibility and even the necessity of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I guess I’m skeptical the Palestinians would actually agree to it, or as soon as you agree to it,” he said, “all of a sudden, there’s still rocket attacks.”

In theory, Masters said he was open to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, which had long been a bipartisan tenet of American foreign policy in the Middle East until recent years when the GOP began distancing itself from the concept. “It’s more Israel’s business to sort of tell us, like, is that tolerable?” Masters said. “Will that actually work? I’m not an expert here, but I guess in principle, I’m open to it, and in practice, it’s just like, I feel like I’ve grown up watching Israel try, in good faith, to coexist, and it’s always: Nope.”

Masters said he is in favor of continued U.S. security assistance for Israel, even as he admits that he is “skeptical of aid to basically everywhere else,” including what he criticizes as “State Department NGO grifts” that sap resources back home. “Like, you know, you send $350 million to Botswana, and it’s just some jobs program for some left-wing bureaucrat,” he said. “But I think it’s healthy to be skeptical in almost all cases, and I think it’s healthy and appropriate to help Israel.”

He expressed support for legislation that would provide Israel with $1 billion in supplemental funding to replenish its Iron Dome missile-defense system following the May conflict with Hamas. “I think it’s really cool, actually, as a piece of technology. It sucks that you need it. But again, tough neighborhood,” he said. “I mean, the United States and Israel are not the same country, different countries, I think we can all acknowledge that.”

But he was unaware that the funding is currently being blocked in the upper chamber by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a fellow libertarian-leaning Republican for whom Masters expressed admiration in conversation with JI. In a move that has angered pro-Israel advocates, Paul has insisted that the funding should be reallocated from aid for Afghanistan. “Don’t really know about that,” Masters said. 

Eager to dispel any notion he would reject such aid, Masters explained his rationale for the funding in a circuitous manner that suggested he was still feeling his way through the issue. “Our countries have a relationship that is unique and special, and so Israel is not just another country, and we might not fund a similar thing for every other country in the world, but every other country in the world is not Israel, so I support Iron Dome and would want to continue to fund it.”

Masters does not appear to have publicly addressed such issues in much depth. Last summer, The Washington Free Beacon wrote that Masters was “less confident in the articulation of his views on foreign policy” than his concerns around “the political issues posed by Big Tech,” after an interview in which he had “offered to follow up with detailed answers” when asked about the Iran nuclear deal.

While Masters said he views China as “the primary geopolitical foe to the U.S.,” he emphasized that Iran remains an abiding concern. In the Middle East, “I think Iran is obviously a terrorist state, basically a hostile actor, and, you know, stuff’s complicated, but to a first approximation, it’s like, no, I’m pro-Israel and anti-Iran, and they could never be allowed to have the bomb. Period.”

He was critical of the Biden administration’s renewed nuclear agreement negotiations with the Iran. “You’re not supposed to negotiate with terrorists,” he elaborated, arguing that the Biden administration has shown it “is willing to cave” on a range of issues as it seeks consensus with Iran. “You’re not supposed to deliver pallets of cash to people who hate you, who hate Israel, who want to wipe it off the face of the map.”

Erika Neuberg, a Jewish community leader in Arizona who serves as an AIPAC national board member, said she had met with Masters at the beginning of his campaign and found his knowledge somewhat lacking in the Middle East foreign policy realm, even as she believes he is sincere in his support for Israel. “My take with him is that I don’t think he had a deep understanding of the Middle East or the history of the area,” she said. “We all have to acknowledge that he’s an unknown.”

She also expressed reservations over Masters’ “interest in compromise” with Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle. “I come from an AIPAC model, where I’m always seeking that consensus, that sweet spot, and I see him as a little idealistic,” Neuberg said. Still, she praised Masters as a quick study who is “surrounding himself with decent policy” advisers. “I see him as a piece of clay that’s yet to be molded.”

Months into his campaign, Masters remains something of a cipher to Jewish activists in Arizona, according to Michael Beller, a co-founder of Arizona Teaching the Holocaust and a Republican. “No one knows him either inside or outside of the Jewish community,” Beller told JI in a recent email exchange, characterizing Masters as “an extremist.”

Masters told JI he is planning to expand his outreach to the Jewish community as the race heats up. “We’ll be putting together a coalition, you know, ‘Jewish Voters for Blake,’ or who knows what exactly we’ll call it,” he said. “But I have some good contacts who I want to sort of help organize this.”

Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he has spoken with Masters and is “in the process of connecting with all the major candidates” in the race. Brooks declined to elaborate on the details of his conversation with Masters but told JI that RJC “will not be making an endorsement in the primary.”

Either way, Masters may find himself at odds with the group over what he describes as his strong support for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the far-right conspiracy theorist whom the RJC has repeatedly denounced for espousing antisemitic tropes before assuming office and during her time in Congress. 

“I’d love her endorsement,” Masters said of Greene. “I think she’s just really impressive. Like, I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet with her and chat with her, and I think she’s the real deal.” He criticized Twitter’s decision to ban her personal account in January over what the social media company cited as “repeated violations” of its COVID-19 misinformation policy. “I think a lot of people in the media don’t understand her broad appeal. They don’t understand that normal Americans look to her as a champion of their values and of their issues. I don’t know, man, she takes a lot of heat, but I admire her bravery, and I think she’s quite talented.”

Masters said he was unfamiliar with specific instances in which Greene has been accused of antisemitism, including likening vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany. “I’m not familiar with the comments,” he said. “I remember there being some scandal, I forget what she said. But the thing that I remember from at least one of these things was, I think after that, she went to the Holocaust Museum and she toured it and she gave a press conference,” he said of Greene’s visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., last summer. “How unlike a politician this was. It wasn’t fake. She’s just like, ‘Hey, I said some stuff — and again, I don’t remember what it was — but she was like, ‘It was wrong.’”

Since that visit, Greene has continued to compare the mandates to the Holocaust, which Masters acknowledged as “insensitive” in conversation with JI. But he pushed back against accusations that Greene herself — who drew widespread criticism last month after she spoke at a white nationalist conference hosted by the Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes — holds any personal animus toward the Jewish people. “Do I think she actually is antisemitic?” he said. “No, I don’t. She’s not, like, super close to me. You know, we’ve had a couple conversations, but I was impressed with how she owned whatever that scandal was and apologized.”

In the January interview with JI, Masters drew a contrast between his approach and Greene’s. “I think my role is different,” he said. “I have my own personality and stuff. But I think it’s a mistake to discount the work that she’s doing, and I see a lot of people on the left and in the media elite do that. I don’t think they understand what she’s up to.”

Blake Masters

Masters argues that “most” antisemitic rhetoric now comes from the far left. “To the extent some people are doing it on the right, like, obviously, they should not be doing that,” he said. 

Aside from Greene, Masters expressed a kinship with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), for his “bold leadership on Big Tech,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), particularly on “issues of law and order,” and freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), “a rising star” and the youngest representative in the House. 

In January, Cawthorn endorsed Masters’ Senate bid. “We’re no longer interested in electing candidates who say they’re Republicans and then abandon the Americans who trusted them with their vote,” the congressman said in a statement to JI. “The Republican Party has been reborn — it’s America First from here on out. Blake Masters is that America First candidate. I’ve spent time with Blake, I know his passion for this country, and I know he will not abandon Arizonans. He will advance the MAGA agenda in Washington without hesitation. That’s why I endorsed him in this race.”

“I’m deadly serious about implementing that ‘America first’ agenda,” Masters emphasized. “I think it’s what we needed in 2016. I think it’s what we need now.”

Masters grew up in Tucson and attended Stanford Law School, where he first met Thiel when the venture capitalist spoke at one of his classes. “It really opened my eyes,” said Masters, who wrote up Thiel’s comments when he returned again for a follow-up lecture and, somewhat audaciously, pitched a book idea that would become Zero to One. He joined Thiel Capital to handle marketing for the book, and his purview soon expanded into general public relations and speechwriting assignments. Soon enough, Masters was president of the Thiel Foundation and became what he describes as Thiel’s “right-hand man.”

“He’s always having dinner parties with very different kinds of people,” Masters said of Thiel. “You know, it might be Noam Chomsky, it might be a Catholic bishop, it might be some random group that thinks they’ve cracked the nut on how to start some semi-autonomous country in the jungles of Honduras. Or it might be, like, Ted Cruz. I get invited to a lot of this stuff. It’s just a very active environment, and I think that compounds over many years. I’ve just gotten to be part of so many different conversations. It’s hard to quantify, hard to almost even articulate how that shapes somebody, but I feel like I’ve sort of seen it all at the elite levels of politics and business and intellectual discourse, and so I feel pretty well-grounded in all of this stuff.”

Masters worked on the Trump presidential transition team, of which Thiel was a member, and came to believe he “understood what was happening much better than most of the congressmen and senators” he was meeting at the time. Before Trump, Masters said he had been a libertarian who supported former Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-TX) 2008 presidential bid. By varying degrees, he had always identified as something of a conservative as well, but found himself “jaded” by, among other things, what he described as the Bush administration’s “welfare-warfare” style of governance. 

“I think I’m running against some fine guys or whatever, you know, they’re accomplished in different ways,” he told JI. “But I think they are conventional politicians and candidates that you’ve seen before.”

“I thought maybe Republicans just weren’t going to be serious if it’s just about low corporate taxes and to hell with everything else,” he said. “But then Trump came along and was willing to speak plainly and boldly and say things that people knew were true but you weren’t quite allowed to articulate. He busted up the establishment.”

After returning to Arizona, Masters considered mounting a primary challenge against McSally in 2020 but ultimately held off. “Who would have thought that we would lose two Senate seats?” he said. “Who would have thought the opportunity would even exist? But we did. I think it’s going to take a very different kind of Republican to win them back and to reset things.”

Theil recently stepped down from the board of Facebook’s parent company, Meta, to support Trump-leaning candidates in the midterms. Masters says they speak once a week. “Our theory of the case has just been, I have a unique set of skills and interests and just do things that no one else is doing,” he said.

Masters says he maintains no illusions about the challenge of unseating a well-funded incumbent in the general election matchup, which will likely be among the most closely watched races in the country as Republicans seek to regain their majority in the Senate. But he expects to find out, and seems largely unconcerned about the primary, despite a lack of momentum that has so far kept him from the front of the pack.

“I think I’m running against some fine guys or whatever, you know, they’re accomplished in different ways,” he told JI. “But I think they are conventional politicians and candidates that you’ve seen before.”

He said he would happily accept an endorsement from Trump, who attended a fundraiser for Masters last November in Palm Beach. But while Masters notes that he and the former president have had “good conversations,” he says he has no special insight into Trump’s plans for the race. 

“I think he likes me,” Masters ventured. “I think he can tell that I’m not bullshitting.”

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