“Ridiculous and flat-out bald-faced lie.” “Not true and nonsense.” “Absolutely not true.” 

Those were just a few of the defenses wielded by Arizona Senate candidates incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly and first-time challenger Blake Masters in response to each other’s accusations about abortion during a debate Thursday, Oct. 6. 

Both Kelly, D-Ariz., and Republican candidate Masters grossly mischaracterized the other’s stances on abortion, one of the key issues for voters in November’s midterm elections, leaving Arizonans unclear where their potential representative in the Senate truly stands on the critical issue. 

Libertarian candidate Marc Victor, who said during the debate, “I want to speak up on behalf of the drunken sailor,” was undiscriminating in his criticism of both Masters and Kelly, calling out each candidate for being beholden to their party. The drunken sailor comment was in response to Masters accusing President Joe Biden of spending like a drunken sailor.

Victor criticized Masters for refusing to clearly answer a question about his past views on abortion, lecturing both the host and the audience: “This evasiveness from Blake Masters is exactly why you should have a principle and stick with it. You asked him specifically did he scrub his website and he said, you can go to my website now and look at it. That’s evasion.”

It’s nothing new in American politics for competing candidates to lob insults, accusations, and whoppers at each other, and abortion has long been exploited as a political wedge issue. But in a year when a constitutional right has been ripped away from women with the Supreme Court of the United States overturning Roe v. Wade, the debate provided no clarity. 

Many women, pregnant people and abortion providers say they need more clarity. But they’re not getting it from most candidates, representatives, or pollsters. 

With one of the nation’s key races taking place in Arizona this year, and with the balance of the Senate potentially at stake, it remains particularly hard to get a straight answer from either of the men running for the high office about where they, or their opponent, stands on abortion.

Update

Nor is it clear exactly where Arizonans stand. The most recent poll showed, from late September, 91% of registered voters in Arizona support some form of legal abortion, but the poll did not specify the gestational limit. That’s in line with national polls. According to a Gallup poll from May, 85 percent of respondents supported at least some legal abortions.

A plurality of respondents in the same poll say that they support legal abortion under “certain circumstances,” but what exactly does that mean? Given the confusing and neck-snapping changes in the state of the law, where do Arizonans find a clearer answer to where their neighbors, and where their candidates, stand on the issue? 

Reproductive rights protesters block traffic on Congress Street in downtown Tucson on Friday, June 24, 2022. Photo by Michael McKisson, AZ Luminaria.

Arizonans on abortion

“There is no polling for Arizona specifically on the time-based restrictions,” Mike Noble, Chief of Research and Managing Partner of OH Predictive Insights, one of the leading pollsters in Arizona, told Arizona Luminaria. 

Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion restrictions in Arizona were limited to complying with that constitutional protection, but Arizona laws still were in effect. Patients had to wait at least 24 hours before obtaining an abortion, the procedures were not always covered by Affordable Care Act plans, and only physicians could provide abortions. 

But a time-based restriction, a ban after 15 weeks, is exactly what the Arizona legislature passed earlier this year. It’s also the latest proposal from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, for a federal abortion law. 

Masters has recently said that he supports the 15-week federal ban, which is a significant change from his earlier position, shifting from a hardline anti-abortion position to less extreme views.

The September OH poll found that “an overwhelming majority of Arizona voters” — that 91% — “want abortion to be legal in at least some cases, leaving only 9% of those who believe there should be a total ban on abortion in the state.” 

In other words, 91% of Arizonans disagree with the current law, which dates from 1864 and bans all abortions with no exceptions besides when the procedure is “necessary to save her life.” The lack of clear medical guidance for the only exception has drawn a chilling response from those who fear the human-rights and health abuses that will ensue as doctors and nurses weigh prison against endangering a mother’s life.

But no statewide poll has been conducted to gauge support of when and under what conditions abortions should be permitted or restricted. 

To complicate things still more, not all the laws on the books are currently being enforced. 

Essentially, there are two laws on abortion in Arizona: a post-15-week ban signed into law this year and the law that dates back to 1864 that was recently allowed to take effect after a Pima County Judge Kellie Johnson lifted an injunction that had been in place for 50 years.

Confused? You’re not alone. 

Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was flummoxed enough to have to ask Gov. Doug Ducey to call a special legislative session to clarify if the 15-week ban or the 1864 law is in place. 

According to a Sept. 28 letter from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, “the Governor’s office has not taken a clear legal position on the current state of the law in Arizona.” 

The letter, signed by Solicitor General Beau Roysden, says that it is “imperative” that the Governor’s Office “assist in providing clarity” and call a special session.  

At the time of publication, no special legislative session has been called, and no clarity has been provided.

In the counties where it matters most — where by far most abortions have been performed in the state — the head prosecutors are also left in a muddle. 

In a recent report from Cronkite News, Coconino County Attorney William Ring said, “The confusion isn’t that we can’t read the law, we can’t reconcile the law.” 

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell released a statement on Sept. 27 saying that the recent ruling in Pima County has not “resolved which law among conflicting statutes applies,” noting she’ll need further guidance. Pima County Attorney Laura Conover, meanwhile, told Cronkite News, “The problem here is providers don’t know what is lawful and what’s not.”

All of which makes it especially important for voters that the Senate candidates make clear exactly where they stand, and what laws they will support if elected. They had the chance to provide that clarity during their only scheduled debate. 

Here’s a breakdown of what Kelly and Masters said about abortion Thursday and throughout this election cycle.

U.S. Senate candidates in Arizona, from left, Democrat Mark Kelly, Republican Blake Masters and Libertarian Marc Victor, faced off in a debate at Arizona PBS in Phoenix on Oct. 6, 2022. (Photos by Alexia Faith/Cronkite News)

Masters on Kelly

At a meet and greet event at the RNC Hispanic Community Center in Tucson on Sep. 27, Masters stood in a small, low-ceilinged room with about 20 supporters as the sun slashed through the hanging blinds. He sped through his stump speech — lobbing insults at Kelly and claiming he supports “open borders” even though he “may even be a nice guy,” and then hitting the “spiking crime” and rising inflation bullet points — and then opened the floor. 

In response to one woman’s question on his abortion stance, Masters began by attacking Kelly, saying Kelly’s position “is so radical, so extreme, so out of step with Arizonans, he’s got to lie about my views to try to deflect from his own ghastly position.”

Masters continued, explaining that Kelly “sponsored legislation that would have mandated legal abortion nationwide up until the moment of birth. Literally.” 

Politifact, a fact-checking website, took Masters to task for a similar previous statement, calling it “mostly false.” Politifact explained, “The woman would play a key role in any decision, but a plain reading of the text places equal responsibility in the hands of the physician. That fails to meet the commonly used definition of “abortion on demand.”

When asked by Arizona Luminaria if he supported the near-total ban on abortions in the state, and the criminalization of abortion providers, Masters said, “My opinion is irrelevant.”

He was ostensibly referring to the idea that the states are now the governing bodies to determine and enforce abortion laws, and he is running for federal office. However, his recent support for a national post-15-week ban underscores that his opinion could very well be relevant, especially if he becomes a Senator and national abortion laws, like the one he says he supports, are ever up for a vote. 

Much has been written about his shifting stance on the issue. Like anybody, political candidates are allowed to change their minds. But according to Mary Ziegler, an author of multiple books about the politics of abortion and an expert on the legal history of the American abortion debate, Masters’ stance smells of political opportunism.

In late August, he scrubbed a number of hardline anti-abortion positions from his website. Ziegler called Masters’ shuffle-to-the-center part of the standard political playbook. 

“What feels different,” she says, “is the degree of Masters’ flip-flop.” He is now distancing himself, Ziegler noted, even from the pro-life movement, which he had previously courted and which promulgates much more restrictive policies than a 15-week ban. 

When pressed on Masters’ statement about Kelly’s abortion stance, his campaign manager, Zachery Henry, told Arizona Luminaria, “Kelly is an original co-sponsor of S. 4132, legislation that would force all 50 states to allow abortion without limits by erasing nearly all state-level limits on abortion.” 

The 4132 bill, or Women’s Health Protection Act, Politifact tidily explains, “does not mandate abortion on demand ‘until the moment of birth.’”

Between gladhanding supporters at the Sept. 2 event in Tucson, when asked  whether or not he supports the current state of Arizona’s near-total abortion ban, Masters deflected.

“I’m focused on federal law,” he said, turning again to Kelly’s position, which he said “is way radical… And I just want to prevent that.”

Kelly on Masters

While Kelly denied repeated requests for an in-person or telephone interview, a spokesperson for his campaign, Chloe Cameron, shared with Arizona Luminaria on Sept. 30 a statement in response to Masters’ accusations regarding his abortion stance: 

“Blake Masters is once again doing anything he can to try and distract from his dangerous support for a total abortion ban, with no exception for rape or incest.” 

However, by Sept. 30, Masters had significantly softened his rhetoric on abortion restrictions, and was calling for a 15-week ban, or, as he said at the meet-and-greet in Tucson, a “federal backstop.” 

When asked for clarification given that Masters has stated he no longer supports nationalizing a complete ban on abortion, Cameron sent two sources that quoted old statements from Masters. That was the same line Kelly repeatedly took during the debate, accusing Masters of espousing his old, albeit recent, views.

During the debate, Kelly was particularly evasive about his stance toward late-term abortions, saying he stood by the same restrictions that were in place under Roe v. Wade. That seems to not align with his support of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which was less restrictive of late-term abortions than Roe. 

While Kelly has been steadier on the issue than Masters during the campaign, Ziegler also sees Kelly as “cynically exploiting” Masters’ shifting policies.

“Another reason Kelly is talking about it is because he’s on Easy Street,” Ziegler said. Given that most Americans, and most Arizonans, are in favor of at least some legal access to abortion, in our post-Roe world, the issue is now harder for anti-abortion Republicans to navigate. 

Kelly calling out Masters’ previous stance corners his Republican opponent to defend that hardline stance or explain his recent flip-flop. He’s done neither.  

November in October

Early voting begins in the state on Oct. 12. One of the Senate candidates on the stage will be representing Arizona in Washington. They may have the chance to vote on a national abortion law, possibly confirm a Supreme Court Justice, and be a deciding vote on a range of issues.

American politics is typically won on the attack, which is why midterms so frequently result in majority parties losing seats. During the debate, besides beyond the standard bloviating, there wasn’t much more but attacks between Masters and Kelly. 

Besides picking a new senator, Arizonans will be choosing a new governor, state attorney general, county prosecutors, as well as a host of other legislators and politicians who will be deciding how to interpret and implement current laws or write and pass and sign future laws.

To know where they stand, voters will have to cut through a thicket of squawking and backbiting, as Kelly put it on the stage Thursday night, plenty of “nonsense.” 

Longshot libertarian candidate Victor seemed to steal the show, at least on social media, in his repeated and scathing critiques of his opponents’ partisanship. 

“Why is Marc Victor lowkey becoming the star of this debate? Lol,” wrote Belén Sisa, a campaign expert and longtime Arizona advocate for “Dreamers” and immigration reform.

Speaking to voters on the abortion issue, Victor said of Kelly and Masters, “These politicians offer no special wisdom at all.”

John Washington

John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...