Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Republican challenger Blake Masters took to the debate stage in Phoenix Thursday evening, where the two clashed over President Joe Biden’s handling of the U.S. economy, border security, and reproductive rights.
The candidates opened the debate by highlighting how high inflation has crippled consumer spending across the country. Masters specifically shared a story of how some parents are having to forgo meals so they can better afford to feed their children.
"This crushing inflation is ruining people's lives," Masters told debate moderator Ted Simons. "I had parents come up to me two weeks ago to a campaign event. They said Blake, we don't eat breakfast anymore. We drink coffee. We drink coffee so that we can afford to feed our kids breakfast. And that's on you, sir. This is the Joe Biden-Mark Kelly economy."
Kelly, a former astronaut, was narrowly elected in 2020 to serve the remainder of late Republican Sen. John McCain's term, said the COVID-19 pandemic, which he referred to as "something unprecedented," was squarely to blame for the current economic crisis.
"Two and a half years ago, we went through something unprecedented. You know, COVID-19, schools had to shut down. Businesses shut down across Arizona," he said. "Sometimes the federal government has to step in to save small business. You know, they have to step in to protect livelihoods."
Masters, a venture capitalist, who is backed by former President Donald Trump, rebutted, saying Biden continues to needlessly spend money, exacerbating the inflation problem.
The Republican was also asked if Biden was legitimately elected as president in 2020, to which Masters replied: "Absolutely...have you seen the gas prices lately?"
"Joe Biden is spending like a drunken sailor at every single opportunity. Mark Kelly just says yes. He can't say no to [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer. He can't say no to Joe Biden," the Republican said.
He added: "At least Senator Sinema stopped Build Back Better. My gosh, you were ready to vote for that. That would have just ruined our economy."
The candidates then tackled border security and immigration.
While both candidates advocated for a more secure border, Kelly pointed to Washington’s — and Biden’s — failure to help alleviate an overwhelmed Border Patrol and to mitigate record levels of immigration. The Democrat was fighting for Arizonans though, he argued.
"I've been strong on border security and I've stood up to Democrats when they're wrong on this issue including the president," Kelly said. "When the president decided he was going to do something dumb on this and change the rules, you know, that would create a bigger crisis."
The Democrat added: "You know, I told him he was wrong. So I pushed back on this administration multiple times. And I've got more money on the ground to increase Border Patrol staffing technology and where it makes sense to build more barriers."
Staying on message, Kelly again pointed to Washington and party leaders, including the president, for failing to secure the border.
"Washington, D.C. has failed on the border," Kelly continued. "Washington, D.C. has failed on this issue of border security and immigration for decades. And it's been crisis after crisis. I've been focused on this since day one, you know, and I brought more resources here to the state of Arizona to deal with it."
Masters countered by saying Kelly was simply not doing enough to help protect Arizona from some of the dangers involved with not properly vetting those crossing into the country.
He also pointed out that Kelly voted against an amendment that would have allowed the hiring of 18,000 more Border Patrol agents.
"If this is the result of Senator Kelly being focused on the border, my gosh, he's the most ineffective and worst senator of all time," Masters said. "The border is wide open. People are walking through by the hundreds of thousands."
"Mark Kelly voted for more IRS agents not more Border Patrol agents," the Republican added.
The two candidates also clashed over abortion and reproductive care, an issue that has risen in popularity among potential voters after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade over the summer.
Masters said he supports an abortion limit set at 15 weeks of pregnancy, matching a proposal from South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
"I support limits at the federal level," the Republican said. "Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed a fifteen-week bill with the common exceptions and I support that. I believe in limits."
Masters said Kelly, who has advocated for codifying a constitutional right for women to have an abortion, believes in "no limits" regarding abortions.
Kelly pushed back calling the high court’s decision "devastating" and "wrong" and argued Masters would completely roll back abortion procedures in the state.
"Let me be perfectly clear. Arizona women have totally lost the right to make a decision about abortion. It's devastating. It's wrong. And it's exactly what my opponent, Blake Masters, wants," he said.
The event was their only debate ahead of November’s midterm elections which are just over a month away.
The debate was hosted by Arizona PBS and the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission and the two frontrunners were joined by Libertarian nominee Marc Victor.