Just a few days after President Trump issued his first pardon to former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio as a devastating hurricane was barreling down on Texas, the 85-year-old floated his name as a potential political candidate.
“I could run for mayor, I could run for legislator, I could run for Senate,” he told the Washington Examiner on Monday. Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt last month for defying a judge’s order pertaining to his department’s arrest of undocumented immigrants, was referring to a potential primary bid to unseat Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) next year.
While political observers in Arizona said they were not surprised that he would put his name out there again as a candidate for office, Democrats in the state seemed to giddily hope he’d jump in anyway, further fracturing the Republican primary base in the hopes of flipping the seat.
“Bring him on. He lost in 2016. We can defeat him in 2018,” Ann Heitland, communications chair of the Coconino County Democratic Party, which encompasses Flagstaff, told The Daily Beast.
She’s of course referencing Arpaio’s losing bid last year for a seventh term as Maricopa County sheriff, a result driven in part by Latino voters who responded to Arpaio’s positions on illegal immigration and the cruelty of his prison.
It’s unclear whether the elderly former sheriff would seriously mount a bid in an already crowded potential primary field that includes former state senator Kelli Ward, a favorite of Trump’s base who was encouraged by a tweet from the president himself.
In addition to Ward, who has been deemed toxic by the Senate Leadership Fund—a super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—former state GOP chairman Robert Graham and Arizona Treasurer Jeff DeWit are in the mix as potential challengers.
“All the anti-Flake people, which has gone far beyond the Trump base, are considering every possibility because they all feel Kelli can’t win a general election,” Graham told The Daily Beast on Monday when asked about Arpaio’s comments.
According to Graham, that’s the exact sentiment President Trump expressed last week when he met with DeWit and Graham before a fiery marathon speech in Phoenix. Despite his seeming support of Ward, or at least the idea that she would mount a challenge against Flake, whom Trump dislikes, the president seemed to think that Ward may have difficulty in the general election, according to those familiar with the conversation.
For now, Democrats are just biding their time, hoping that whoever emerges from the Republican primary will be battered enough that the seat will be up for grabs.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, state Rep. Randy Friese, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton have all been considered possible Democratic nominees for next November’s race. Sinema and Friese did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article, and a spokesman for Stanton, who blasted Trump’s Arpaio pardon, said the mayor was unlikely to comment further on the former sheriff or his electoral prospects.
But it’s not as if Arpaio would be dead in the water in the hypothetical primary matchup.
“Last year we found he had a 64-23 favorability rating with Republican voters statewide,” Tom Jensen, director for Public Policy Polling, told The Daily Beast. “Since Flake is significantly under water with voters in his own party, I think it’s a good bet Arpaio would beat him in a primary, or at least start out ahead of him.”
A spokesman for Flake’s reelection campaign declined to comment.
Even if Arpaio has a shot at getting past Flake, Jensen said, the former sheriff would have little chance after that.
“Given Maricopa County’s firm rejection of him in the general last year and what a huge chunk of the statewide vote is cast there, I think it’s a safe bet he would lose, probably badly, in a general election for the Senate,” Jensen said.
“I think between Flake's unpopularity, the B team of possible primary challengers to him, and the overall political climate, Democrats are more likely than not going to pick up the seat next year.”
At the moment, Arpaio is trying to get his conviction undone while basking in the limelight of the president’s praises, issued once again at a press conference on Monday.
“He’s done a great job for the people of Arizona. He’s very strong on borders, very strong on illegal immigration,” Trump said at the White House.
As for why he came to the decision to pardon the former sheriff on the cusp of a major hurricane, Trump said: “I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”