Joe Arpaio, the infamous former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., announced on Tuesday that he is running for the Senate seat soon to be left open by retiring Republican senator Jeff Flake. Before Arpaio entered the race, the dynamics of the GOP primary seemed straightforward enough: In the populist lane was Kelli Ward, who enjoyed endorsements from the likes of Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity; Representative Martha McSally was set to fill the other lane, earning the support of Mitch McConnell and his political allies. If a third candidate entered, it was expected to be former state GOP chairman Robert Graham, or someone in his mold: a populist Trump supporter carrying less baggage than Ward.
Obviously, nobody has more baggage than Arpaio.
His decision to run could help McSally, splitting the hardline populist vote and clearing the congresswoman’s path to the nomination. Longtime Arizona senator Jon Kyl, who retired in 2013, takes that view, telling National Review, “The Ward team can’t be happy about Arpaio’s entry into the race. Presumably, he’ll take away some of her support.” If Arpaio winds up crowding out Ward and paving the way for McSally to win the nomination, his candidacy will have been a perverse boon for the Republican party.
The danger, however, is that Arpaio becomes the next Roy Moore: winning the primary only to lose in embarrassing fashion in the general election. Remember, Moore’s candidacy in Alabama was supposed to sap support from Mo Brooks and pave the way for Luther Strange.
The first poll since Arpaio announced his candidacy suggests such a scenario is possible. The ABC/OHPI poll shows McSally pulling 31 percent of the vote, Arpaio pulling 29 percent, and Ward lagging behind with 25 percent. Ward, who once led McSally by eight points, has indeed seen her support diminish. Yet the gap between McSally and Arpaio is within the poll’s margin of error.
The poll, taken the same day Arpaio announced his candidacy, suggests Arpaio might be able to pull off a primary win. But there are several reasons to resist the comparison to Moore.
First, McSally appears to be a stronger candidate than Strange. Strange had to fight the perception that he struck a corrupt bargain with the governor of Alabama for his appointment to the Senate and never quite mastered the Trumpian language that Republicans now speak. McSally has to battle a perceived lack of enthusiasm for President Trump. Trump is more popular in Arizona than he is in the rest of the country, and Ward has pushed the narrative that McSally is just another Jeff Flake. But there is reason to believe she can dispel that narrative. The congresswoman declined to endorse Trump in 2016 election, and criticized him in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape. But since Flake announced his retirement, McSally has taken a different approach towards the president. Conspicuously, she has worked with the Trump administration on tax reform and DACA — and publicized that work on Twitter and TV.
Then there is the possibility that Arpaio is an even worse candidate than Moore. Sheriff Joe and Judge Moore certainly share the tendency to wax conspiratorial in the matter of Barack Obama’s birthplace, and despite their risible monikers neither cares for the rule of law. But the corruption and sexual-misconduct allegations against Moore became common knowledge only after he had won the primary. Arpaio, by contrast, comes with a dishonorable record that has already hurt him in an election.
As sheriff of deep-red Maricopa County, Arpaio disgraced himself time and again. He once said that the Tent City prison of which he was the steward was a “concentration camp,” and there was more than a grain of truth in the joke. The prisoners had to survive under cruel, appalling conditions. Often, they did not. Maricopa County has had to pay millions out to settle lawsuits filed by the families of dead inmates; in one instance, guards beat a schizophrenic prisoner to death on Arpaio’s watch.
Arpaio also scoffed at what he called “civil-rights crap.” Here, too, he meant what he said. A district-court judge found that his sheriff’s department had a pattern of racially profiling Latinos, and ordered it to stop detaining people on suspicion of their being illegal immigrants. Maricopa County taxpayers remain on the hook for more than $70 million in fees for the case. Against the suggestion that Arpaio was merely enforcing the law is the fact that he refused to comply with the court order. Indeed, Arpaio is a convicted criminal. With a record like this, it’s no surprise that he lost his most recent election in 2016 — despite the fact that deep-red Maricopa County voted overwhelmingly for President Trump.
And it is Trump who, ultimately, will be one of the most important considerations in the race. The president is obviously loyal to Arpaio for the sheriff’s staunch support in 2016, and his pardon of Arpaio’s sentence for criminal contempt invites speculation of an endorsement. According to the ABC/OHPI poll, that would increase Arpaio’s support to 35 percent in the primary, and could give him the upper hand. Trump is mercurial, but he has several reasons not to throw his weight behind Arpaio: the simple desire to avoid another embarrassing loss in a red state; McSally’s willingness to work with the president; and Trump’s newfound inclination to follow the Republican establishment’s lead in 2018. If it’s foolish to rule a Trump endorsement of Arpaio out altogether, it’s equally foolish to call it a sure thing.
So is Joe Arpaio the next Roy Moore? Only in the sense that he’s a disgraceful candidate who would be sure to lose the general election. The Democratic party, for its part, seems likely to nominate Kyrsten Sinema, a fierce competitor who, as a blue-dog Democrat, looks like the rare candidate who can win statewide. “Even if I were not a supporter of McSally’s campaign,” Kyl says, “I would still say as an objective matter that she has the best chance of winning the general election.” When McSally announces her candidacy in the coming days, she should be considered the front-runner in the primary as well. An Arpaio nomination is not impossible. Thankfully, however, it doesn’t seem too likely.
— Theodore Kupfer is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.