Joe Arpaio may be a local sheriff, but his national profile has helped him build a war chest three times the size of Donald Trump’s.
According to Arpaio’s latest campaign finance disclosure (PDF), the combative immigration hardliner has raised nearly $9.9 million for his November bid for a 7th term as Maricopa County sheriff, including $1.94 million since January alone.
But despite the famous sheriff’s enormous fundraising haul, Democrats are convinced that an ongoing federal trial against Arpaio, along with Arizona’s growing Latino voting population, will not only make the sheriff vulnerable, but will also make him as much of a drag on Arizona’s Republican ticket as Trump, especially for Sen. John McCain’s bid for a 5th Senate term.
The 84-year-old sheriff’s national appeal shows up in his massive small-dollar donor list. Of the more than 100,000 people in his active donor file, 26 percent come from Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, while the rest are a hodgepodge of retirees, teachers, cops, cashiers, and electricians from California to North Carolina.
Most of those have probably seen Arpaio on Fox News, where he has long been a fixture as a conservative attack dog on everything from President Obama’s “fake” birth certificate to the finer points of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Arpaio endorsed Trump before nearly any other Republican elected official in the country and recently hammered Republican leaders as “gutless” for not getting behind Trump more strongly.
Arpaio’s own November election is a re-match against veteran Phoenix police officer Paul Penzone, who lost to Arpaio by six points in 2012. Since then, Arpaio has faced a failed recall effort and remains at the center of a years-long federal racial profiling case challenging his department’s roundups of undocumented immigrants in 2011. In May, a federal judge found Arpaio and several top deputies in contempt of court for continuing the immigration sweeps. A month later, the judge said he is considering dismissal for the deputies and federal criminal charges for Arpaio.
Penzone said the federal case has “absolutely” changed the dynamics of the race this time around.
“To be a person who says he stands for the rule of law, but then defies the courts, day by day these things show the voting community at large that he’s no longer effective,” Penzone said. “It’s become slowly corrosive to the point where voters now realize it’s time to look for new leadership, qualified leadership.”
An internal poll conducted in the first week of June and provided to The Daily Beast by the Penzone campaign shows Penzone beating Arpaio for the first time, 48 to 44 percent with a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
A key to the race’s outcome will be the state’s Latino population, which is expected to make up as much as 20 percent of the electorate, but has historically voted at much lower rates than white voters. Eduardo Saenz, the Arizona deputy director of the Latino advocacy group Mi Familia Vota, said the Arpaio race is as important, if not more important, to his group as defeating Donald Trump.
“Arpaio has been criminalizing our community. People want to register to vote to make sure he doesn’t make it back to office,” said Saenz. “Trump has been getting a lot of national media attention, but for Arpaio, it’s a local fight we have every day.”
Chad Willems, a consultant to the Arpaio campaign, dismissed predictions that 2016 will finally be the year Democrats beat him.
“They’ve been saying that for the last 16 years at least,” Willems said. “The problem for them is that the sheriff enjoys support from across party lines.”
In addition to votes from Republicans and independents, Willems said Arpaio typically picks up between 25 to 30 percent of registered Democratic and Latino votes. “They know him and they’ve elected him time and time again.”
Another veteran Arizona Republican said he’s no Arpaio fan, but predicted he will win easily. “Arpaio has been under investigation almost as long as he’s been a sheriff, but it only makes him more popular,” he said. “People want an asshole for a sheriff.”
With Trump and Arpaio dominating national and local headlines, Democrats are openly hoping that their combined weight will take John McCain’s Senate bid down with them. McCain is facing a crowded primary field Aug. 30 and an unusually tight race against three-term Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a relative newcomer to McCain’s 30-plus career representing Arizona in Congress. A PPP poll showed McCain leading Kirkpatrick by 6 points in May, with 55 percent of Latinos saying they’d be less likely to support a Senate candidate who supports Trump, which McCain has said he’ll do.
“Arizonans are ready for new leaders who will work to keep families together, support local communities, and put our state first,” said D.B. Mitchell, a spokesman for the Kirkpatrick campaign. “That’s why folks across Maricopa County and all over our state are registering to vote and getting ready to turn out in record numbers this November.”
The Democrats will have their work cut out for them to knock of the veteran Republicans, who have won 11 statewide races in Arizona between them. While Arpaio’s last race was within single digits, McCain won reelection in 2010 by 25 points. And the same poll that shows Arpaio possibly losing to Penzone by four points in November also shows McCain dominating Maricopa County 50 to 35 percent, with Trump ahead of Clinton by 5.
Since the county accounts for roughly 60 percent of the state’s population, it gives McCain hope that as of now, 2016 may be just another near death experience for him, no matter the fortunes of Trump and Sheriff Joe Arpaio.