When President Trump pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio last August for criminal contempt of federal court associated with his defiant pursuit of racial and ethnic profiling in harassing Latinos, the main rationalization was that the old demagogue wasn’t in a position to do much more damage. He was 85 years old, and had just been knocked out of the sheriff’s office he had held onto for 24 years. Why not let him drift away?
But if there was some memo suggesting that Arpaio would go finally go away after his pardon, he didn’t read it. He’s now announced his candidacy for the seat being vacated by retiring U.S. senator Jeff Flake. And his platform is pretty simple: Nobody’s going to outdo Sheriff Joe in worshiping the man who kept him out of the pen.
Arpaio’s main offer to Arizonans: He would support Trump unflinchingly, should he win the nomination and defeat the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. That’s not insignificant. Both Flake and McCain have a contentious relationship with the president, and he with them.
More to the point, Arpaio could easily make the GOP primary revolve around his signature law-and-order themes, as applied to the immigrants he thinks should be aggressively vetted for possible illegal status, and to the county prisoners he reportedly (and gleefully) treated brutally as object lessons to anyone living in the shadows.
Since he became sheriff in 1993, Arpaio has exploded the number of inmates in the county — not by jailing dangerous criminals but by imprisoning undocumented workers, most of whom are not yet convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial …
Denigration and mental abuse have … reached new and surreal heights. The best example is the number of occasions on which he has marched hundreds of undocumented migrants, chained together, through the streets and the desert — in front of the media. One time, the sheriff forced a group to march wearing only pink underwear and flip-flops. He also formed female chain gangs.
Sheriff Joe will be tough to ignore. And the first poll of the Republican primary since he entered it shows he could even be a competitive candidate despite his age and disrepute. An Arizona pollster found Arpaio running essentially even with presumed candidate U.S. representative Martha McSally, and a bit ahead of announced conservative firebrand Kelli Ward (McSally had 31 percent, Arpaio 29 percent, and Ward 25 percent).
Ward, a former state legislator who ran a credible if unsuccessful challenge to John McCain in 2016, is the candidate most likely to suffer from Arpaio’s campaign. And McSally, likely the strongest general election candidate, will in theory have a much easier time winning a primary plurality if Arpaio and Ward split the votes of diehard Trump fans. (There’s even a fringier candidate in the race than either Arpaio and Ward: former revenge porn pioneer Craig Brittain, though he’s not being treated as a serious prospect.)
It should be kept in mind that given John McCain’s health, it’s entirely possible a second Senate seat will be up in November with no incumbent. That could scramble the race for Flake’s seat, and perhaps draw a different field.
Arpaio’s age will be the real wild card in any race he pursues. He would hardly be the first octogenarian with a chance to win a Senate race, in Arizona or elsewhere. McCain was 80 when he was reelected in 2016, and longtime Arizona Democratic senator Carl Hayden won his last term in 1962 at Arpaio’s own age of 85. No one older than 76, however, has been popularly elected to the Senate for the first time.
One interested observer of the 2018 Senate race who is not taking Sheriff Joe’s bid seriously is the man he is seeking to replace, Jeff Flake, who quipped: “Write about it fast, because it won’t last long.”
But it’s probably a mistake to write off Arpaio’s campaign as a bad joke. Even if he doesn’t win, he can affect the dynamics of the midterm cycle in Arizona and elsewhere. And he’s probably got about as good a shot at going to the Senate as his hero in the White House had of becoming the 45th president when he announced his candidacy in 2015. That turned out not to be funny at all.