The Slatest

Could Sheriff Joe Be the Next Arizona Senator?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio attends a rally by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Oct. 4 in Prescott Valley, Arizona.

AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the Washington Examiner reported that recently pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio might jump into the race for Jeff Flake’s Arizona Senate seat. From the Examiner:

“I could run for mayor, I could run for legislator, I could run for Senate,” Arpaio said Monday. One particular race, however, is likely to gain significant attention: the GOP primary next year facing Flake, R-Ariz., a forceful Trump critic.

“I’m sure getting a lot of people around the state asking me” to challenge Flake, said Arpaio, who served 24 years as sheriff before losing reelection in 2016. “All I’m saying is the door is open and we’ll see what happens. I’ve got support. I know what support I have.”

Should Arpaio run, he might actually have a chance at beating Flake. Really, so might anybody. Flake, a vocal Trump critic who has nevertheless voted with him more than 93 percent of the time, is at 18 percent approval overall and at 22 percent approval among voters who went for Trump in November. Flake’s vulnerability has already brought him a formidable challenge from the right in state senator and onetime Alex Jones guest Kelli Ward, who had a 14 point lead over Flake in a recent primary poll. That lead is the product of a Trumpian and Trump-endorsed campaign—she’s attacked Flake as pro-amnesty and, just days ago, backed Trump’s pardon of Arpaio. “We applaud the president for exercising his pardon authority to counter the assault on Sheriff Arpaio’s heroic efforts to enforce the nation’s immigrant laws,” her statement read. Flake, on the other hand, tweeted this:

Arpaio and Ward don’t seem to disagree on much, which suggests they could split the deeply Trump-aligned vote, boosting Flake. Still, if Arpaio jumps in and the race actually comes down to which candidate is the most racist, Arpaio—a man convicted for refusing to end a program of racial profiling and who marched mostly nonconvicted Latino inmates to a place he called a “concentration camp” in 2009—will win.

But the Republican electorate in Arizona isn’t quite as hard-line on immigration as the state’s reputation on the issue, shaped largely by Arpaio himself, suggests. An Arizona Republic poll last year found that 58 percent of Republicans in the state would oppose the deportation of all illegal immigrants, although a majority said the United States should definitely or maybe build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. A more recent KTAR News poll on that question, conducted in the spring, found 67 percent support among Republicans for a wall.

The numbers on immigration within the overall electorate, though, could signal doom for Arpaio or Ward should either beat Flake in the primary. The Arizona Republic poll found that more than 68 percent of Arizonans opposed deporting all immigrants and that more than 72 percent believed the United States should “definitely not” or “maybe not” build the wall. The KTAR News poll found that 62 percent of Arizonans believe the wall is unnecessary. Half of Arizonans, moreover, opposed Arpaio’s pardon according to an OH Predictive Insights poll from last week, suggesting the electorate isn’t terribly fond of the former sheriff. And a majority of Arizonans—55 percent—disapprove of the job Arpaio’s fan in the White House is doing, as Slate’s Elliot Hannon reported recently. “This is not a good sign for Trump or the GOP,” he wrote last week, “considering the president underperformed in November, pulling in only 48 percent of the vote, beating Hillary Clinton by a slim 3 point margin.”

All told, a primary win for Arpaio would make an already plausible Democratic pickup even more likely.