Last August, President Donald Trump pardoned one of the nation’s most controversial lawmen in the middle of a hurricane. Now, former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio says he hopes to pay the president back for his support—by fighting battles on his behalf in the U.S. Senate.
“I believe that the president should get support, and I’m going to help him do that,” Arpaio told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “One way I can fight back is to get to Washington so I can help and alleviate some of the controversy and the problems we have, for the good of the country and the good of Arizona.”
Arpaio, a staunch opponent of illegal immigration who served as the sheriff of Arizona’s largest county for nearly a quarter century before losing his bid for a seventh term in 2016, had told The Daily Beast in December that he was “seriously, seriously, seriously” considering entering the race to replace outgoing Arizona Republican and longtime Trump critic Jeff Flake.
On Tuesday, while juggling a cellphone that played Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with each incoming call, the man who has styled himself for decades as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” cited Flake’s insufficient loyalty to the president as his reason for running.
“I didn’t like what was going on in the war against our president—I think that helped sway me,” Arpaio said. “We have two senators here that do not like the president, and so I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, he’s gonna need some help, and the country needs some help.’ So I’m gonna put my hat in the ring.”
In Arizona, Arpaio is viewed, depending on one’s political views, as either a gunslinging folk hero or a badge-wearing gangster. For decades, Arpaio was cheered by some for his hard-line views on immigration and reviled by others for alleged abuse of power, unconstitutional jail conditions at his infamous “Tent City” outdoor jail, and for costing Maricopa County taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits against his department.
That outsize reputation translates into a potentially huge donor base, Arpaio said.
“I raised $13 million as sheriff in my last campaign,” Arpaio said. “I feel that the people of this country, and this state, support me, even today.”
Arpaio’s decision to enter the race upends an already crowded Republican primary field. Rep. Martha McSally, a former combat pilot who currently represents Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, is expected to announce her candidacy on Friday; former state senator Kelli Ward, a self-described “a build-the-wall, stop-illegal-immigration Americanist,” declared her intention to primary Flake even before he announced his retirement in October.
Ward, a fellow MAGA traveler whose candidacy has already received the backing of billionaire donor Robert Mercer, poses a particular threat to Arpaio’s primary chances. The two candidates share national profiles, deep-pocketed out-of-state donors, and unwavering public devotion to the president. The Venn diagram of their supporters, Arizona Capitol Times reporter Rachel Leingang observed, “is just a circle.”
The 85-year-old former sheriff dismissed the notion that he and Ward would cannibalize each other’s support, enabling McSally’s nomination.
“I think my support comes from more than just Donald Trump. My support comes from what I’ve done as sheriff and around the world,” Arpaio said. “People vote for me for me, for what I am and what I’ve done in my life. If the so-called political experts bring that out, they just don’t understand the voting public.”
Democrats were quick to note that six months ago, Arpaio faced a potential jail sentence after being convicted of criminal contempt of court for refusing to stop detaining Latinos based on the belief they had illegally entered the country. Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, a former Justice Department official who once slapped Arpaio with a civil-rights lawsuit alleging rampant constitutional abuses, called Arpaio a “convicted criminal” and “one of our nation’s most notorious agents of racism and bigotry.”
Arpaio rolled his eyes at Perez’s comments, and at the idea that he is a “convicted criminal.”
“Let him say what he wants,” Arpaio said. “He’s talking about ‘convicted criminal’? He’s talking about a contempt of court misdemeanor. If he’s talking about convicted criminals, he should take a look at the Democrats and see how many of them should be convicted.”
Some Democrats, however, relish the idea of facing off against Arpaio in a general election.
“Bring him on. He lost in 2016. We can defeat him in 2018,” Ann Heitland, communications chairwoman of the Coconino County Democratic Party, which encompasses Flagstaff, told The Daily Beast in August.
Trump had not yet reached out to the former sheriff about his bid to replace Flake, Arpaio told The Daily Beast, but regardless of the president’s endorsement plans, he still hopes to serve as the president’s main man in the U.S. Senate.
“We’ll see what happens,” Arpaio said of a potential endorsement. “I don’t know. That’s a decision he has to make and, regardless, I’ll still support him. I started from the beginning and I always will: his policies, his agenda, his hard work. All the heat that he’s taken, same way with me—so I understand what’s happening to him, because it’s happening to me.”
Beyond supporting Trump’s agenda in the Senate, Arpaio was light on specifics of what his platform would look like.
“I’d be able to do a lot of nice, independent things when I’m there,” Arpaio said. When pressed for specific nice and/or independent things he would hope to accomplish in the Senate, Arpaio said he hoped to spend most of his time listening to constituents in Arizona.
“What I want to do is spend time here in Arizona with my constituents and deal with the problems we have here and actually be here dealing with people—that’s what you should do,” Arpaio said. “That may seem corny, but what other reason would I be running? To get my name in the paper? My name’s in the paper every day around the country! Around the world!”