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Sen. Mark Kelly is in a tough Senate reelection bid in swing state Arizona

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some time after today, we find out if a tradition of politics endures. Normally - though, not always - the president's party loses seats in Congress in a midterm election. Republican strategist Scott Jennings told us yesterday that is why his party enters the vote counting with a perceived advantage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SCOTT JENNINGS: Well, I think the return to the fundamentals of a normal midterm - Joe Biden's approval rating is still charitably in the mid-40s, in many places in the low 40s. That usually bodes poorly for the party in power. And No. 2, the economy and inflation have reasserted themselves as the biggest issues.

INSKEEP: Democrats are pushing against this trend. And one is Arizona Senator Mark Kelly. He's a distinctive political figure. He's a former astronaut and the husband of former Representative Gabby Giffords, famously wounded in an assassination attempt. He's a Democratic senator who went out of his way to praise his Republican predecessor, John McCain. Now he's in a tough reelection in a purple state. And while Kelly is with his party on abortion rights and issues like Medicare and Social Security, he emphasizes that at times he has criticized President Biden.

MARK KELLY: I had to tell the White House when they weren't doing enough about bringing down gas prices - and, you know, told them that they need to increase the number of leases in the Gulf of Mexico. They did some of that, not enough. We put it in legislation. Now it's the law that the president signed. Now we have to get the oil companies to step up because they've been reluctant. They've got outsized profits, you know, right now.

INSKEEP: Can I ask about the idea of voting for the person versus voting for the party? We, of course, have interviewed a lot of voters. And one said very clearly to me last month, I would like to think that I would vote for the person. But really, I have to vote for the party because the stakes are so high in who controls Congress. Can you make a case for someone who is in Arizona who's more conservative voting for you regardless of which party you're in, even though you would be on the Democratic side?

KELLY: Absolutely. But let me first say, I've always voted for the person, you know, my entire adult life. I think that's important. I try to set the party politics aside. I was in the military, 25 years in the Navy. I spent also 15 years of that at NASA. I didn't care about the party of the person sitting next to me. I mean, decisions should be about, what does the individual represent? Who are they? What are they going to do? I mean, I've tried to do things much differently.

INSKEEP: But really, isn't your vote for Senate majority leader going to be your single most important vote?

KELLY: My single most important vote? No, no. I think my...

INSKEEP: Yeah, deciding who controls the chamber if it's close.

KELLY: I think my single most important votes are things like leading and then voting on things like the CHIPS Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the veterans health care that we expanded. Those are the most important votes we take. And think about this for a second. I mean, we did that working across the aisle, bipartisan legislation. That's the way the place is supposed to work. You know, you talk about a contrast between me and my opponent? He says that Democrats are psychopaths. And he will not work with moderate Republicans. And if he's in the United States Senate, there will be no legislation for two years.

INSKEEP: Arizona's Republican nominee is tech executive Blake Masters, who did use that word, psychopaths, about Democrats in an ad. Masters did also say he would try to shame moderate Republicans if they do not accept his views on border security. Mark Kelly insists he takes a more bipartisan approach to immigration. And he speaks of Arizona's border a little as some Republicans do.

KELLY: Oh, there's a lot wrong. First of all, it's a crisis that's been going on for decades. The numbers go up. They go down. They go back up. And I've successfully got, you know, more resources to the border. I also have legislation to increase border patrol pay. When the president wants to do something, It doesn't make any sense to me. You know, I have legislation - like on Title 42, I have legislation to prevent them from ending Title 42 until they come up with a plan.

INSKEEP: Oh. We should explain for people. This is the policy that allows people to be kept out of the United States because of concerns about COVID. You want to keep that in place for now?

KELLY: Yes. It is a public health thing that was put into place. However, before you get rid of it, you got to have a plan on how you're going to deal with these increasing numbers. And DHS doesn't have a plan.

INSKEEP: Now, Blake Masters, your opponent, in a debate with you last month did note that border apprehensions have gone up recently. And here's how he phrased it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLAKE MASTERS: Illegal aliens, when they come here, they're supposed to be caught and deported back to their home country or back to some other country that wants them. But, no, Joe Biden and Mark Kelly, they laid out the welcome mat. This is the greatest country in the history of the world. If you invite everybody to come here, you'll create a crisis.

INSKEEP: Now, Senator, there's a lot in there. But just getting on the idea of inviting people to this country - is there something about President Biden's rise to power, his criticism of Donald Trump's immigration policies that did create the idea for some people that they would be welcomed in the United States under a Biden administration?

KELLY: You know, we've had record high numbers over the last year especially. But we've have had numbers, you know, approaching these in the past, even decades ago. They go up and down for a lot of different reasons. That's why I'm going to continue to work with my Republican colleagues to get Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection and especially Border Patrol the resources they need. I've also successfully, you know, got this administration to close some of the gaps in the border wall system. South of Yuma, there's been four big holes in the wall. Now we have contracts to get those closed. And I'm going to continue to work on this.

INSKEEP: One other thing. Did you agree with the president the other day when he warned that democracy is at risk depending on the results of this election?

KELLY: I didn't see the speech. And I don't agree with the part, that quote. And, you know, this might be out of context. So I haven't seen the whole thing.

INSKEEP: He was saying that there are hundreds of Republicans on the ballot who have denied past election results and therefore could not be relied upon to abide by future election results.

KELLY: Well, I think it's true that there are - my opponent, you know, he says the 2020 election was stolen here in Arizona. He's also now saying the 2022 election will be or might be fraudulent. Those things are dangerous. So I get the concerns. And, you know, that's why it's important for people to get out and vote. We have a stronger democracy when more people vote, you know? To have a former president telling people that, you know, the whole thing is rigged is just not healthy for our democracy.

INSKEEP: Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona. Thanks so much.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: He's facing the voters of Arizona today. We should tell you, NPR reached out to Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters for an interview in recent days. We were told he wasn't available. Although, the invitation remains open.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "THE FAIREST THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.