The Arizona primary where the MAGA movement is devouring itself

  • Abe Hamadeh and Blake Masters are locked in a bitter primary fight for a House seat in Arizona.

  • Masters has made attacks on Hamadeh’s Muslim background a key aspect of his campaign.

  • The primary fight also shows just how nationalized politics has become.

It’s a subject that Abe Hamadeh can’t seem to avoid.

In campaign trail appearances in the Phoenix area last month, the Republican congressional candidate, an Arab American with a Muslim father, inevitably made some sort of reference to the barrage of television ads and near-ubiquitous yard signs that have painted him as an Islamic terrorist sympathizer.

“How many of you guys have seen these nasty ads against me?” Hamadeh asked the few dozen Republicans who had ventured to a crowded antique shop in a northern Phoenix strip mall to hear him speak. “They’re pretty bad. I look at them and I’m like, ‘I’ve got a lot of facial hair in those ads.'”

On paper, Hamadeh — his party’s nominee for state attorney general in 2022 — should be the presumptive winner of the GOP primary for Arizona’s 8th congressional district. He’s been endorsed for Congress by former President Donald Trump and has the enthusiastic backing of Kari Lake, the former gubernatorial candidate and all-but-certain Senate nominee who remains popular among the MAGA faithful in Arizona.

Yet Hamadeh remains stuck in an apparent dead heat with the man behind the nasty ads: Blake Masters, the Peter Thiel protégé and 2022 Senate nominee who’s plowed millions of dollars of his own fortune into his opposing bid for the seat. “He is running a very bigoted race,” Hamadeh told me of Masters, “and MAGA and the America First movement is bigger than that.”

This primary, described by some as the nastiest in America, will be a test of that proposition — whether conservative voters can look past any drummed-up suspicions about Hamadeh’s background to elect one of Arizona’s most fervent election deniers. It’s also a window into what may be the future of Republican politics, where what happens on the internet can matter more to voters than what happens in the state legislature, and where politics becomes so thoroughly nationalized that one candidate, Blake Masters, can plausibly seek to represent a House district over 100 miles from his home in Tucson.

Abe Hamadeh speaking to voters at an antique shop in North Phoenix.Abe Hamadeh speaking to voters at an antique shop in North Phoenix.

Abe Hamadeh speaking to voters at an antique shop in North Phoenix on Tuesday, June 25.Bryan Metzger

This congressional seat, anchored by tens of thousands of older voters from around the country who’ve ensconced themselves behind the gates of sprawling, palm tree-studded retirement communities, is overwhelmingly Republican. Whoever wins on July 30 is all but guaranteed to go to Washington.

If Masters and Hamadeh dropped out, the race would still be crowded. There’s Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma, who’s been endorsed by the district’s retiring congresswoman, Rep. Debbie Lesko. There’s state Sen. Anthony Kern, who was on the steps of the US Capitol on January 6 and now faces charges over his role as one of the state’s fake Trump electors in 2020. There’s even former Rep. Trent Franks, who previously represented the district before resigning amid a sexual harassment scandal in 2017.

But those other men have largely become an afterthought. While they may possess the legislative records and strong ties to the district that Hamadeh and Masters lack, both frontrunners possess something far more crucial for winning a wide-open Republican primary in 2024, especially in a district like this: High name recognition and MAGA-world stardom.

‘It’s a lively primary’

It’s virtually impossible to drive through the suburban roads of northwest Maricopa County without seeing one: A large corrugated cardboard sign blaring the phrase “America was founded on Islamic principles” in bold yellow text beside a photo of Hamadeh at the Kaaba in Mecca, dressed in the ihram clothing that Muslims wear during the Hajj pilgrimage. One of Masters’s TV ads also declares that Hamadeh “blamed Israel for 9/11” and once supported a pathway to citizenship for people living in the country illegally.

As startling as the ads are, there’s been little widespread outrage or condemnation among local Republicans, including the incumbent congresswoman. “You know, I’ve been involved in politics for a while,” Lesko told me while walking to vote at the Capitol. “I expect everything. It’s a lively primary, and may the best person win.”

An anti-Hamadeh yard sign, paid for by the Masters campaign, beside one of Hamadeh's own signs in the 8th district.An anti-Hamadeh yard sign, paid for by the Masters campaign, beside one of Hamadeh's own signs in the 8th district.

An anti-Hamadeh yard sign, paid for by the Masters campaign, beside one of Hamadeh’s own signs in the 8th district.Bryan Metzger

While Masters is twisting his opponent’s words — the 33-year-old Hamadeh made most of the statements in question when he was a teenager, browsing the same kinds of mid-2000s message boards that Masters notably used to frequent — his negative campaign is capitalizing on real complexities about the Trump-backed candidate’s political identity.

Hamadeh is the son of Syrian immigrants — a Muslim father and a Druze mother — who moved to Chicago in 1989 and overstayed their visas. His name was “Ibrahem” before he anglicized it to “Abraham” in 2010. His parents faced the threat of deportation in 1996 after his father, a jeweler living in Skokie, was indicted in connection with a 1994 synagogue firebombing, though prosecutors were unable to definitively connect him to the crime, and the charges were ultimately dropped. His father successfully appealed that deportation order, citing the fact that two of his children, including Abe, were born in the United States and were thus citizens. Masters’s campaign has gone as far as to call Hamadeh an “anchor baby.”

Hamadeh’s family later moved to Arizona. “As soon as they got off the flight, they looked at each other and they said, ‘Wow, we found the Middle East of America,'” he told the antique shop crowd. In his youth, Hamadeh apparently identified on some level as a Muslim, writing in a Ron Paul Forums post in 2009 that he would be the “first arab american/muslim senator ooooh yeah.” It was that same year, on that same forum, that Hamadeh made the “Islamic principles” comment, in which he was arguing against the demonization of Muslims while referencing a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad at the Supreme Court. He also blamed “Israeli Mossad” for the September 11th terror attacks, though he later disavowed those views in an interview with the Daily Wire.

After graduating from the University of Arizona’s law school in 2016, Hamadeh worked as a prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and joined the US Army Reserve as an intelligence officer. He made the trek to Mecca during a 14-month deployment to Saudi Arabia from 2020 to 2021.

Two years ago, Hamadeh’s religious background was a clear asset for a MAGA movement that has at times been keen to highlight its non-white adherents: In 2022, a local conservative outlet promoted the Mecca photo to illustrate the GOP’s “bigger tent.” Yet Hamadeh himself speaks about it now with some detachment. “My dad is Muslim, my mom is Druze, I have family who are Christian,” he told me. “I’ve been to Jerusalem, I’ve been to Istanbul, the Vatican, Thailand, Japan. I’m very non-denominational, I don’t identify really with one particular faith. I just have a belief in God, and I believe Jesus is going to return to Earth, but I think organized religion, in many ways, has failed so many people.”

The Republican Party is replete with ambitious politicians fashioning themselves to fit the moment, and Hamadeh has played his cards right. In the space of several months in 2022, he emerged from relative obscurity to become the party’s nominee for attorney general, winning Trump’s endorsement as the result of his unflinching devotion to the former president’s stolen 2020 election claims and perhaps a well-timed loan from his wealthy brother. Running on a ticket with Masters and Lake, he came the closest of the trio to winning in 2022, falling just 280 votes short in what he calls “the closest statewide race in Arizona history that everybody just seems to ignore.” He has since insisted that he is the rightful winner of that election, and he’s now on his fourth lawsuit over the results.

Hamadeh’s chief identity is that of a fighter, a “happy warrior” as he puts it. During the first primary debate, he referred to himself as a “young man with a lot of testosterone.” He’s prone to trash-talking his political adversaries, quipping after our interview that Ben Toma is “gonna get 12%” in the primary and that “nobody talks about” Trent Frank’s “sexual shit.” He’s also demonstrated a fluency in the parlance of the MAGA faithful, proclaiming to his supporters that “this is a 1776 moment” while warning them to be “cognizant of all of these psyops.”

“They’re not just after me, they’re after all of you,” Hamadeh declared during his antique shop stump speech, echoing a favored line of the former president. “You all are a threat, just for being here.”

‘I call everybody crazy’

While Hamadeh’s calling card is stolen elections and a medley of contemporary MAGA bromides, Blake Masters is most closely associated with the New Right, an idiosyncratic form of conservatism that seeks national transformation along nationalistic, populist lines. The movement’s most prominent spokesman in the halls of Congress is Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, who has endorsed Masters and is currently in the running to be Trump’s vice-presidential pick.

But while Vance made it across the finish line in 2022, Masters did not, owing in large part to a slew of alienating comments he made during free-wheeling interviews he gave during his Senate campaign. At one point, Masters named Ted Kacynski, a domestic terrorist known more commonly as the “Unabomber,” as a “subversive thinker that’s underrated.” This year, he appears to be more taking a more disciplined approach. “Blake is really not doing any more interviews for the rest of the campaign,” his spokesperson told me in June.

“This guy, he lost against Mark Kelly because he’s a weirdo,” Hamadeh told me. “He’s a weirdo and nobody likes him, quite frankly. Kari and I were trying to drag him up, and look how he repays us.”

Abe Hamadeh, Kari Lake, and Blake MastersAbe Hamadeh, Kari Lake, and Blake Masters

Hamadeh, Lake, and Masters ran together as a statewide ticket in 2022.Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Bereft of the Trump endorsement, Masters has turned to running ads blaring that Trump endorsed his Senate campaign, an apparent attempt to muddy the waters that’s drawn the ire of the former president’s inner circle. Lacking the “stolen election” credibility that Hamadeh and Lake have — unlike the other two, he has fully acknowledged that he lost his Senate race — Masters has made illegal immigration the centerpiece of a starkly nativist campaign, pledging at one recent debate to be the “most conservative, most right-wing, anti-immigration member of Congress.”

At a forum in the Sun City West retirement community, where each House candidate was given just four minutes to make their pitch to a crowd of roughly 300 Republicans, Masters spent roughly half of this allotment on the issue.

“Illegal immigration is a cancer,” Masters said. “It is ruining our country. It’s common sense: If you import the Third World, you become the Third World. I think the Left is obsessed with replacing us. If you’re a sort of ‘heritage American,’ if you’re a white American, they hate you. The Left hates how you look, they hate the way you think. If you’re a minority here, and you’re willing to come to this room as a Republican or an independent conservative, well, they hate you for being a turncoat. Look at how they treat the best Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, right? The Left is demented.”

Blake Masters speaking to a group of Republicans at a candidate forum in Sun City West.Blake Masters speaking to a group of Republicans at a candidate forum in Sun City West.

Blake Masters speaking to a group of Republicans at a candidate forum in Sun City West.Bryan Metzger

In May, Masters leaked a text that Hamadeh sent to him in which the former attorney general candidate appeared to privately mock those who believe in stolen elections. “I’m not lumped in with crazies with election stuff because I’m so close at 280, but the crazies love because they see me fighting,” Hamadeh said in part. When I asked Hamadeh who he was referring to when he said “crazies,” he laughed it off.

“We’re all crazies,” Hamadeh said, his face curling into a sardonic grin. “It’s ironic. I call everybody crazy. It’s actually a very endearing term in these times.”

As Hamadeh has waged his counteroffensive against Masters, he’s done the same thing that Democrats did to the 37-year-old tech entrepreneur in 2022: Dredging up his long history of online commentary, including internet forum comments from his libertarian days calling for “unrestricted” immigration and his residence in a vegan co-op while attending Stanford University.

While Thiel has stepped back from overt involvement in politics this year, Hamadeh has sought to turn Masters’s association with the right-wing tech billionaire — who Business Insider revealed last year to be an FBI informant — against him, pointing to a nearly $25 million bonus that Masters earned from Thiel Capital in 2023. “I think that warrants some investigative journalism,” Hamadeh told me. A person familiar with Masters’s compensation package, which the candidate revealed in financial disclosures this year, said that the payment was a bonus that Masters was owed in accordance with an industry-standard contract that he signed in 2018.

‘I can’t vote for you’

Back at the antique shop, Hamadeh opened up the floor for questions, includes half a dozen about whether this November’s election might also be stolen, one about whether a newly concocted virus or “a meltdown of the grid” might prompt a cancellation of the election, another about “what can we do” to fight “the deep state,” and precisely zero about what specific policies Hamadeh might champion if he were elected to represent the 8th district.

In fact, we weren’t even in the 8th district — we were five miles away from its easternmost edge. “I can’t vote for you,” one woman, apparently not a prospective constituent, told Hamadeh as she shook hands with him after the event, “but I’ll give you a donation.” Hamadeh did grow up in the area, but he’s lived in Scottsdale for years. Hamadeh’s campaign says that he has since re-established residency in the district, while Masters continues to live all the way in Tucson.

But charges of “carpetbagging” don’t exactly land the same in Arizona: Most of the state’s residents are transplants from out of state, and that’s even more true of the tens of thousands of retirement community residents — many of whom likely pay more attention to Fox News or alternative media sources than the Arizona Republic — who make up a large chunk of the local GOP electorate and are the most likely to actually vote.

Ben Toma, the speaker of the Arizona HouseBen Toma, the speaker of the Arizona House

Ben Toma, the speaker of the Arizona House, may simply be too much of a nice guy to win this race.Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

It is under these conditions that this primary’s top two candidates, neither of whom have held elected office, are waging an ugly fistfight, much of it via dueling “War Room” accounts on X. When Hamadeh talks about issues specific to the district, it’s to speculate that Chinese nationals may be crossing the southern border to surveil the sprawling TSMC semiconductor plant undergoing construction in the northern reaches of the district. Masters, meanwhile, proudly told the Sun City West crowd that he’s “honored to have won and beat Mark Kelly” by “seven or eight points” in the district when he ran for Senate.

As attendees streamed out of the candidate forum, few stopped to shake hands with Ben Toma, the mild-mannered state House speaker who had politely warned the crowd to “be careful of noisemakers” and touted his record of enacting key conservative priorities on tax cuts and education reform while keeping a narrow, fractious majority in line.

“I don’t think this new breed of in-your-face, always rushing to tweet or post something on social media, or run after a network camera, is good for us,” Toma told me.

But Toma may simply be too much of a nice guy for this climate. He wasn’t offering the red meat being sold by Hamadeh, who was busy holding court with a steady procession of voters on the other side of the room. He also can’t compete with the personal war chest of Masters, who had apparently already bolted from the event.

Moments earlier, I had overheard Toma explaining to one attendee — apparently unaware of what office he held — that he was, in fact, the speaker of the Arizona House.

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