Should liberals and Democrats pray for a Joe Arpaio victory in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate? On the one hand, his primary victory would further poison the political atmosphere and embolden white supremacists, anti-immigrant haters, and other bigots. On the other hand, an Arpaio candidacy would make it more likely that a Democrat will win the Senate seat next November, similar to Doug Jones’s defeat of Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate seat last month. A Democratic victory could help the party gain a majority in the Senate, where the Republicans now have a slim 51-49 edge.
On Tuesday, the 85-year-old Arpaio declared his intention to seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake, who declined to run for re-election after polls revealed he would have a hard time winning his party’s nomination. A poll of likely Republican voters on Tuesday revealed Arpaio, with 29 percent of the vote, to be in an almost dead heat with Arizona Representative Martha McSally, who garnered the support of 31 percent of those surveyed.
Arpaio was the elected sheriff of Maricopa County from 1993 until 2016, until he lost re-election to Democrat Paul Penzone. He called himself “America’s toughest sheriff” but was best known as a racist, a foe of immigrants, and a corrupt politician. During his reign of terror as sheriff, his office engaged in racial profiling and was the subject of several federal civil rights lawsuits for abusing his power, leading to more than $146 million in fines and the appointment of a federal court monitor to oversee his office.
Like Trump, Arpaio was a “birther” who has questioned President Barack Obama’s citizenship by claiming that he wasn’t born in the United States. In fact, he continued his racist rants after his announcement, calling Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate a “phony document” in a CNN interview. He also reiterated his opposition to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to stay in the country. “Deport them,” Arpaio said in a recent NPR interview.
Arpaio was an outspoken supporter of Arizona’s infamous anti-immigrant SB 1070 law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court. While misusing funds to harass immigrants and Latinos, Arpaio failed to investigate sex crimes and other threats to law and order. He sent prisoners to an inhumane seven-acre outdoor “Tent City Jail” in the blistering Arizona sun.
He instructed his deputies to detain Latino residents in arbitrary traffic stops and ask them about their legal status. They engaged in unlawful immigration “round ups” without reasonable suspicions that a crime had been committed.
He then ignored a federal judge's order to end the practice. Last July, he was convicted of criminal contempt of court for illegal detentions of undocumented immigrants, but he was pardoned by President Trump the next month to repay him for his early endorsement during the presidential campaign.
Arpaio’s life and career “exemplify selfless public service,” Trump said in explaining the pardon. “Throughout his time as sheriff, Arpaio continued his life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”
Before Arpaio entered the Senate race, the GOP frontrunner was Kelli Ward, a white supremacist and former state senator who ran against John McCain in the 2016 primary and garnered 40 percent of the vote to his 51 percent. She was leading in recent polls this year, running with the support of recently ousted Trump aide Steve Bannon. Once Arpaio jumped into the fray, he stole much of Ward’s ultra-right base and her support dropped to 25 percent in the latest poll.
Democrats view Arpaio as Arizona’s version of Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who lost a U.S. Senate seat last month to Democrat Doug Jones, the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since 1992. Moore was handicapped by accusations by many women that he had assaulted them sexually when he was in his thirties and they were in their teens, including one as young as 14. Those accusations—as well as Moore’s long history of racist comments and rulings—triggered an unprecedented turnout of African American voters that helped put Jones over the top.
Arizona Representative Kyrsten Sinema is currently the Democratic frontrunner for the Senate seat. A one-time Green Party candidate, she’s now considered a moderate within the Democratic Party, but her views are in sharp contrast to any of her likely Republican opponents.
Sinema grew up in an impoverished family, earned social work and law degrees as well as a Ph.D. in justice studies, and served in the state legislature, where she won plaudits from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation voters, the Stonewall Democrats, the National Association of Social Workers, and Planned Parenthood. She’s pro-choice, supports gun control, opposed SB 1070 and supports the DREAM Act, supports same-sex marriage, and opposed repeal of Obamacare.
But she’s also cast some votes to demonstrate her bipartisan credentials. In 2015 she was one of just seven House Democrats to vote in favor of a Republican-backed bill to repeal the estate tax and voted to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by changing its leadership from a single director to a bipartisan commission. She is also the first and only openly bisexual member of Congress.
Some Democrats have urged retired astronaut Mark Kelly to get into the race. He’s the husband of popular former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who had to resign in 2012 after surviving an assassination attempt that left her with a severe brain injury. Since then, both Kelly and Giffords have become active advocates of gun safety laws. Kelly is likely to skip this election but could be a strong candidate for Arizona’s other Senate seat, which may soon be vacant if McCain loses his bout with brain cancer.
Handicappers think that either Sinema or Kelly could easily defeat the controversial Arpaio. Trump’s pardon of Arpaio would be an albatross around his neck similar to Roy Moore’s reputation as a child molester. Even before the pardon, Arpaio lost his re-election bid in 2016 by a 56 to 44 margin, even though on the same day Maricopa County voted for McCain for Senate (with 55 percent of the vote) and Trump for president (with 48 percent over Hillary Clinton’s 46 percent).
Arpaio’s presence in the race would not only alienate many independents and some Republicans, but also trigger a large turnout of Latino voters for whom Arpaio has long been a hated figure. A large Democratic turnout in the Senate race would help other Democratic candidates in other down ballot races, including two very competitive House contests (one of them for McSally’s current seat).
Once a Republican stronghold, Arizona has become a battleground state. Trump beat Clinton in the state by a 49 percent to 45.5 percent margin. The state is now 31 percent Latino. In 2012, 71 percent of Arizona Latinos voted for Obama; 66 percent supported Hillary Clinton four years later. A record 27.3 million Latinos were eligible to vote in 2016, up four million from 2012. The number will be even larger this year. If Arpaio is the GOP nominee, Latino turnout is likely to spike.
McSally would be a more formidable GOP candidate against either Sinema or Kelly, even in a “blue wave” election season. In the House, McSally has been a reliable conservative Republican, voting in line with Trump’s positions 96.7 percent of the time and is working hard to earn the president’s endorsement. She and Arpaio don’t differ on most important issues and would likely cast similar votes in the Senate, going along with what Trump and Mitch McConnell asked of them.
As a political personality, Arpaio would be toxic. Like Trump, he’s a demagogue who promotes hate and division. After Trump won the GOP nomination for president, America experienced an upsurge of hate crimes and racist incidents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And just as neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and other bigots have taken off their hoods and proclaimed that Trump is “on our side,” an Arpaio victory would bolster and normalize their odious views.
The nation’s top Republicans are understandably worried that if Arpaio wins the party’s nomination, it could lead to a Democratic victory, one that could determine if the Democrats gain a majority in the Senate. Like many congressional races this year, the Senate contest in Arizona is not only between two local politicians but also a referendum on Trump.
Arpaio is running as an unabashed Trump supporter. On Thursday, after being informed that the president had called Haiti and several African nations “shithole countries,” Arpaio that he supported Trump “regardless of what he says.”
This puts Trump is a real bind. He’s supported Arpaio’s campaigns for sheriff in the past. Will he abandon his old friend, who was one of the earliest elected officials to endorse him when he ran for president? Or will Trump consider that he’s paid off his political debt to Arpaio by keeping him out of prison with a presidential pardon?
Whichever Arizona Republican wins the primary will get Trump’s support. Democrats hope that, like the president’s campaigning for Roy Moore in Alabama, a Trump endorsement is now as much a liability as an asset.