Controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) will run for the Senate in Arizona, throwing a bomb into the campaign to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
“I think Washington needs me, the president needs me. I’ve got a lot of experience, 60 years, I’ve dedicated my life serving our country. We’ll see what happens,” Arpaio told TPM in a brief phone conversation Tuesday morning.
Arpaio’s decision to run — first reported by the Washington Examiner — creates further chaos in the race to replace Flake, who decided to retire earlier this year after his criticism of President Trump erased his chances at winning a GOP primary.
The 85-year-old former Maricopa County sheriff has a long history of controversial actions and hostility to immigrants. His department’s sometimes-brutal policing tactics, embrace of racial profiling, and his refusal to change them in the face of court orders led to his being convicted of contempt earlier this year — but he was spared from a possible prison sentence when President Trump decided to pardon his longtime ally.
Arpaio told TPM he didn’t discuss his decision with Trump or White House officials before announcing.
“I haven’t talked to the president about this,” he said. “This is something I decided to do, to go to Washington and be different.”
But he talked up his controversial record, describing it as an asset in the race.
“As a sheriff, I’ve done some controversial investigations,” he said, talking up his earlier work as a DEA agent and later bringing up the construction of a border wall as a way to curtail the influx of “drugs destroying our country.”
If elected, Arpaio would immediately become the Senate’s oldest member — Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are 84. But he said his age was an asset, not a problem, in the race.
“I’m a senior citizen so I don’t expect to make a career out of Washington like most politicians do,” he said.
Arpaio will square off with former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), another firebrand conservative, in the race. Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), an establishment favorite who likely would give the GOP its best chance of holding onto the seat, is expected to announce her own bid in the coming days.
The seat is a top pickup opportunity for Democrats, who have rallied around Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). The state is fast trending Democratic due to explosive growth in the Hispanic community, and Trump won it by just four percentage points last fall. Arpaio also lost reelection on the same day in the state’s most populous county, and Republicans worry that Arpaio could cost them the seat — and possibly control of the Senate, after their recent debacle in Alabama with former Judge Roy Moore as their nominee narrowed their edge in the Senate to 51-49.
It’s unclear whether Arpaio’s campaign will ultimately help his party by splitting the hardline vote and giving McSally a better chance at the nomination, or whether his huge celebrity in the state and his devoted following could make him a tough challenge in the race. It’s also unclear how vigorously the 85-year-old will run, or what campaign infrastructure he’ll be able to construct.
Arpaio declined to discuss his primary opponents. But he didn’t sound worried about his chances in the race.
“I’ve never lost a Republican primary in my political career. I don’t expect to lose this one either,” he said.