Blake Masters, a venture capitalist running for Senate in Arizona, is among the many Republicans who argue that the left's obsession with racial identity politics is driving Latino voters away from the Democratic Party.
But as he vies for the Republican nomination, Masters has pushed a different sort of racial politics that could repel Latinos in the state.
For months, Masters has promoted a specious theory portraying illegal immigration across the southern border as part of an elaborate Democratic power grab. In speeches, social media videos and podcast interviews, he has asserted that Democrats are trying to encourage immigration so their party can dilute the political power of native-born voters.
"What the left really wants to do is change the demographics of this country," Masters said in a video posted to Twitter in the fall. "They do. They want to do that so they can consolidate power and so they can never lose another election." In May, he told an interviewer that Democrats were "trying to manufacture and import" a new electorate.
What Masters calls an "obvious truth" is what experts in extremism describe as a sanitized version of the "great replacement," a once-fringe, racist conspiracy theory that claims that Western elites, sometimes manipulated by Jews, want to replace white Americans with immigrants to weaken the influence of white culture. The idea has been linked to the massacre at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket in May; the El Paso, Texas, Walmart shooting in 2019; and the killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
Masters' version - one that makes no references to Jews or white people, but instead sets up a conflict between immigrants and the native-born - has become pervasive in Republicans' immigration rhetoric. It has risen to prominence alongside the debunked claims that immigrants living in the United States illegally are voting in elections in large numbers.
"This is a view in which there are institutional bad actors maliciously causing change, which will then lead to political subordination of whites," said Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. "That is the root of the fear, and that's the root of what the fearmongers are provoking."
Masters, who declined to be interviewed, disputes that he has promoted the great replacement theory.
"It is obvious to everyone that Democrats see illegal immigrants as future voters," he said in a statement. "No 'theory' is needed to observe that." He criticized "fake experts" who claimed otherwise.
Masters is widely expected to win in the Arizona primary Tuesday. The 35-year-old Stanford University graduate and first-time candidate was propelled to the front of the pack by support from Peter Thiel, the tech mogul he once worked for, and by an endorsement of former President Donald Trump.
His primary campaign has focused on shoring up support among the Republican Party's right-wing and overwhelmingly white base. But as he turns toward the general election, he faces the challenge of retaining those votes while trying to attract new Hispanic supporters in a state where they make up more than one-third of the population.
Republicans have long pushed anti-immigration policies, particularly in the Trump era. This year, Republicans in Ohio, Alabama, Texas and other states have sent National Guard troops to the southern border, debated declaring a border "invasion" under the wartime powers of the Constitution and warned that the flood of immigrants would soon force everyone to speak Spanish.
Those messages haven't always repelled Hispanic voters. Particularly in Texas and South Florida, Republicans have made inroads with Latinos, often by emphasizing their similar views on issues like abortion, patriotism and support for law enforcement.
But anti-immigrant policies in Arizona have been far more damaging to Republicans there, and Masters is going even further than the party has in the past.
Several Hispanic voters in Phoenix and its suburbs said in interviews that they viewed Masters' comments as scare tactics.
Cesar Rodriguez, 35, a father of two who recently opened a taqueria in Glendale, a Phoenix suburb, considers himself an independent. Masters' views on immigration are all about fear, he said.
"I don't see it as anti-Hispanic or anti-Latino - I just see it as, you're just trying to scare someone into voting your way," Rodriguez said. "I'm sure his ancestors at some point were immigrants. Everybody's an immigrant here until they forget."
John Ruiz, a retired state worker from Chandler, Arizona, called Masters "repulsive."
"They're trying to make it look like we're invading this country," he said. "People come over here to work."
Democratic leaders and activists in Arizona call Masters' immigration rhetoric dangerous, racist and hypocritical, as he sounds an alarm about changing demographics while trying to win over the group causing those demographics to change.
"We all know you need to engage Latino voters in order to win statewide," said state Sen. Raquel Terán, the chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. "There's a real hypocrisy of him going out and talking about these replacement theories and then trying to play it that he is the person who is going to be solving your life's problems."
The Masters campaign and his supporters dispute that he is promoting anti-Hispanic messages and say that many Latino Republicans have embraced his Trump-style brand of tough border enforcement.
Masters' campaign manager, Amalia Halikias, said in a statement that the team was "very optimistic about Hispanic turnout."
"Everywhere he goes, Blake hears the same thing: Voters are tired of being sorted into color boxes and prefer substance to identity pandering," she said.
Masters has often responded to criticism of his views by arguing that the left seeks to divide people on the basis of race and by distorting Democratic immigration proposals.
"I always get in trouble when I say this," Masters said on a right-wing talk show in May. "The left just loves to write hit pieces, and they say this is racist and bigoted. Of course, it's nothing of the kind to point out the obvious truth, which is the left wants to bring in millions of illegal aliens, and then they want to give these people amnesty. They want to make these people voters."
For years, politicians in both parties endorsed a path to citizenship for some groups of immigrants already living in the country. Today, that push has been abandoned by Republicans and put on the back burner by Democrats. There is no evidence that Democrats have encouraged illegal immigration so as to increase their potential pool of voters. In fact, in the most recent presidential election, evidence suggests that foreign-born voters swung to the right.
Masters hasn't always endorsed a hard-line stance on immigration. In 2006, while in college, he wrote online that "'unrestricted' immigration is the only choice" for a libertarian-minded voter, which he called himself at the time. But he has since fashioned himself into a nationalist, explaining in one ad that it was "about time our government put America first."
His message has been welcomed by the far right and by white supremacists, including Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist leader; Andrew Torba, creator of Gab, a social media platform popular with extremists; and Andrew Anglin, founder of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. Anglin endorsed Masters last month, saying that he was "exactly the kind of man this country needs," and urged readers to volunteer for his campaign. After an outcry, Masters issued a statement saying that he rejected the support and had never heard of Anglin.
Brian Hughes, co-founder and associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, said he was not surprised to see the far right cheering Masters on.
"If a candidate is pointing toward the ideas that make up replacement theory, he or she doesn't have to spell it out in the ugliest terms; the message gets across," Hughes said. "Because of the broader political context that is taking place here - which includes mass murder - the dog whistles are much more effective. You're playing with fire when you play footsie with these ideas."
Masters isn't the only Republican Senate candidate who has played on voters' fears about immigration. Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general who won the state's Republican primary last month, has struck a similar theme, telling supporters at an event in rural Nevada last year that illegal immigration was part of a Democratic strategy.
"It's scary, scary stuff - 200,000 people pouring over the border every single month," Laxalt said. "Is the media covering this wall to wall? Of course not. Because this is what the left wants. The left wants to radically transform this nation, and they want to destroy the values that made this country a great nation."
The message is not a centerpiece of Laxalt's campaign, and he has focused on Hispanic outreach, starting a "Latinos With Laxalt" campaign in Las Vegas in March with a mariachi band and free tacos. "The Republican Party represents the Latino community," he said at the event. "We have shared values, and we need better messengers."
Jesus Marquez, a Laxalt adviser, said that Laxalt's remark last year was aimed at Democratic immigration policies, not at Latinos, and that the campaign was continuing its outreach to Hispanic voters, particularly in Las Vegas. "Latinos want security," Marquez said. "They care about securing our border."
In both Nevada and Arizona, Latino voters are gaining political clout. They make up an increasingly large share of the voting population in both states and have helped swing many recent statewide elections to Democrats. Those wins were crucial in sending Barack Obama and President Joe Biden to the White House, and handing Democrats control of the Senate.
Even as Republicans have made gains elsewhere, Latinos in Arizona and Nevada have overwhelmingly voted Democratic. But Masters and Laxalt may need to splinter off only a small number of Latino voters while retaining a majority of white voters in order to win. In this year's midterm elections, the path to control over the Senate continues to run through both states, where the Democratic incumbents are seen as particularly vulnerable.
Mike Madrid, a veteran political strategist and "never Trump" Republican who has repeatedly criticized both parties' Latino outreach efforts, said Masters' take on replacement theory could come with political consequences. It is possible, he said, that there is "a growing number of Hispanic voters who are not turned off by this or even tacitly agree."
Still, he said, the message would likely prevent Masters from appealing to moderate Hispanic voters and could turn off white college-educated voters repelled by specious theories rooted in white supremacy.
"Arizona has been moving left because of a convergence of a growing number of polarized Latino voters and a loss of highly educated voters," he said. "This will alienate both those groups."
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