Is Joe Arpaio The Next Roy Moore?

Will Joe Arpaio cause the GOP to lose an otherwise winnable Senate race?

Last year, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was defeated in his last bid for reelection in 2016, was pardoned by President Trump in connection with his conviction for criminal contempt of court because of his refusal to comply with several court orders regarding the operation of his office, law enforcement, and the operation of the jails her oversaw while Sheriff. Early this year, Arpaio announced that he was running for the Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake at the end of the year in a race that includes Congresswoman Martha McSally and Kelli Ward, an Arizona State Senator who unsuccessfully challenged John McCain for the Republican nomination in 2012. Now, some are wondering if Arpaio could end up being Arizona’s version of Roy Moore, a populist candidate who manages to win the election only to lose the General Election to a Democrat due to his controversial views and reputation:

Just a few weeks ago, Arpaio announced he would run for Jeff Flake’s open Senate seat, much to the chagrin of some members of his own party. Plenty of Arizona Republicans—operatives, activists and state party officials—fear a past-his-prime Arpaio will alienate Democrats and independents and moderate Republicans, even if he loses the primary. Already this month, he’s discussed his Senate bid with an anti-Semitic outlet founded by a Holocaust denier, and stoked a discredited conspiracy theory about former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate on CNN. When he was sheriff, he referred to his jail as a “concentration camp,” and through the years his office paid out tens of millions of dollars in wrongful death settlements, including for inmates who were strapped to restraint chairs and brutalized by guards.

“It’s a stain on the party,” said Tyler Montague, a Mesa banker who heads the Public Integrity Alliance, a 501(c)(4) that mostly backs Republican candidates. “It brings the whole party down to clownville.” Should Arpaio manage to win the primary, these same party activists suspect he would get crushed in November.


Ask Arpaio why he wants to run for the United States Senate, and he touts his 60 years of law enforcement experience. He was a beat cop in Washington, D.C., and he worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Turkey and Mexico City as well as the United States. Then came more than two decades as sheriff. “I’m a big law enforcement guy—on the border and fighting drug traffic,” he says. “I have the experience.”

Otherwise, Arpaio doesn’t demonstrate much interest in policy—trade or the deficit or health care—aside from the broad strokes of the Trump agenda. “I agree with him—keep the factories here, keep the jobs here,” he said. He told me he does not support citizenship for Dreamers, and he isn’t convinced the President does, either. “I want to see the blood signature,” he said. “He has a way of changing his opinion, right?” As for what he might say to appeal to Democrats, Arpaio told me he had an excellent record of fighting animal cruelty.

He has plenty to say about his conviction. He wanted a jury trial, he says, and didn’t get one. “No one even knows what a contempt of court charge is!” On his election defeat, he correctly notes that George Soros spent $2 million to beat him. Still, he says he feels no urge for vindication. “I don’t like to think about that word: legacy,” he told me. “My legacy is the day I die, they forget how to spell your name.”

Since losing the sheriff’s race, Arpaio has sent out pleas asking for donations to his legal defense fund to help pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills he accrued. Some wonder if the Senate campaign is just a vehicle to raise money for his debts. “Is he going to leverage somebody—‘give me money to get me out of the race?’—I don’t know,” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona Republican consultant who advised former Governor Jan Brewer. Arpaio laughed at the idea. “I hate to use the word stupid—but it’s stupid,” he said. “Everybody knows you can’t use campaign money to pay legal bills.” (He is correct; that would be against the law. But, as another local Republican operative noted to me, if the party establishment campaigns against him in the Senate race—or if he wins the nomination—Arpaio would have an easier time raising money directly for his legal fund. In March, Arpaio is scheduled to appear at a for-profit “Driving Liberals Crazy” rally in Nashville.)

Mostly, Arpaio likes to talk about Trump. He was lying in bed recently, he told me, when he awoke with an inspiring thought. His whole life he has never had a hero, but in Trump he found his first. The two men share a kind of hive mind, he says. When he welcomed Trump to Arizona in the summer of 2015 and introduced him in a speech, the campaign gave him no guidance about what to say. They wouldn’t need to. “He loved it,” Arpaio told me. “Without even talking about it, we feel the same way.”

Even though it’s barely a month old, Arpaio’s campaign is already arousing controversy. Given his outspoken views on immigration and the state’s Latino population, this was largely inevitably of course, but his involvement in the birther movement, which apparently continues to this day, is also drawing attention to the race. Most recently, Arpaio finds himself dealing with having to explain why he granted an interview to a publication that has endorsed denying the truth of the Holocaust and other controversial views:

On Thursday, Joe Arpaio, the contentious former sheriff who is running for a Senate seat in Arizona, took to Twitter to clarify news reports circulating about an interview he did with an anti-Semitic publication known for attempting to sow doubt about the Holocaust.

“It was brought to my attention I gave interview to publication that supports antisemitism,” Arpaio, a Republican, wrote about his latest interview with the American Free Press, which occurred in January. “I was unaware and don’t support that view point.”

But it was at least Arpaio’s fifth interview with the weekly, which traffics in stories like “Meet The Man Who Invented The Holocaust,” about Nobel Peace Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Arpaio has been questioned before about his willingness to give interviews to the publication. His office was contacted by the Phoenix New Times in 2014 after he gave an interview to the American Free Press with a Holocaust denier who wrote a book titled “Made in Israel: 9-11 and the Jewish Plot Against America.”

One of the then-sheriff’s spokesmen gave an answer that was similar to the one Arpaio gave the Republic this week, implying that Arpaio didn’t know about the site or the author’s background.

“The sheriff does hundreds of interviews with different people and doesn’t do background checks on them before he does them,” spokesman Joaquin Enriquez said in a statement at the time.

The scrutiny over the interview emerged this week after the publication of Arpaio’s latest interview with the American Free Press. The site hailed the “exclusive interview” with the former sheriff, which it said occurred Jan. 21.

Other stories the American Free Press has published in recent years include, “Someone Tell Trump: It was Jews, Not Arabs, Dancing on 9-11,” “Jews Who Control Hollywood Tell Stars: Better Not Mention Palestine” and an audio interview titled “Holocaust Hoax Exposed.” On its store, it sells a book titled,  “The Holocaust Never Happened and the CIA Killed JFK.”

Before he had taken to Twitter, Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that he was not familiar with the American Free Press’s content and declined to criticize the publication.

While it’s perhaps conceivable that Arpaio may not have been aware of the content of the American Free Press when he first gave an interview to the publication, it quite simply strains credulity to believe that he is unaware of it now, especially given the fact that it has been brought to his attention several times in the past. Given that fact, one can only assume that he is indeed aware of the vile lies the publication publishes and simply doesn’t care if he’s associated with them or not. The other possibility, of course, is that Arpaio has been aware of the far-right roots of the publication and that he agrees with them at least to some extent. This would not be inconsistent with his obviously racist treatment of the Latino inmates that were under his supervision and the Latino citizens of Maricopa County while he was Sheriff and the manner in which he embraced, and continues to adhere to, the racist birther conspiracy theories about President Obama.

In any case, the obvious Republican concern about Arpaio is that he could somehow manage to win the Republican Primary scheduled for August 28th and that they would be stuck with someone like him in a General Election in which their candidate will most likely face Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, who is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. In such a situation, Sinema would most likely win the race thanks in no small part to the same set of circumstances that allowed Doug Jones to beat Roy Moore in the Special Election to replace Jeff Sessions in Alabama. The most recent polls show Congresswoman McSally leading the pack with roughly 31% of the vote, but those same polls show Arpaio garnering an average of 25.5% of the vote and Kelli Ward getting an average of 22% of the vote. What this shows, of course, is that Arpaio and Ward are splitting the Tea Party/Trump supporter vote. If this continues, then McSally would stand a good chance of keeping her current plurality of the vote through the primary and winning the nomination since Arizona does not have a runoff election. If Ward drops out of the race, though, or if her supporters shift over to Arpaio in sufficient numbers, then he could pose a real challenge for McSally, and big headaches for the Republican Party in Arizona and nationwide.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    Arpaio is Roy Moore. And Christine O’Donnell. And Todd Akin. And Richard Mourdock. And Sharron Angle.

    Just what Steve Bannon ordered.

  2. de stijl says:

    Arizona has become purple.

    If Arpaio wins the R primary, whether he wins the general election or not, AZ becomes a bluer shade of purple as a result.

    (actually, in real life it is odd that an Arpaio win would make AZ bluer than if he loses the R nomination.)

    A loathsome opponent makes for a feisty electorate. It gooses the turn-out.

  3. HarvardLaw92 says:

    One can certainly hope so.

    Dems spent over $1 million helping Sharron Angle win the Nevada primary, precisely because they preferred to run against her. She was easier to beat. Here’s hoping Arpaio plays out round two of that drama.

  4. Kylopod says:

    This would not be inconsistent with his obviously racist treatment of the Latino inmates that were under his supervision and the Latino citizens of Maricopa County while he was Sheriff and the manner in which he embraced, and continues to adhere to, the racist birther conspiracy theories about President Obama.

    It’s not inconsistent. But Holocaust denial is a rubicon that, in America, you rarely see even right-wingers cross. For instance, Alex Jones has embraced just about every conspiracy theory ever dreamed up in the fever swamps of the right. He’s even dipped a little into anti-Semitism (he’s talked about a “Jewish mafia”). But to my knowledge he’s never questioned the occurrence of the Holocaust.

    Still, Arpaio’s deflections fit the Trumpian pattern perfectly. From practically the moment he emerged on the political scene, Trump has actively courted white nationalists. Several of his retweets have been traced directly to WN individuals and groups with names like WhiteGenocide. (This has included, among other things, a phony stat about African American crime and a graphic featuring Hillary Clinton and a Star of David atop a pile of cash.) When asked about it, he’s pleaded ignorance, claiming not to know where his retweets came from. (Even if that were true, that would be an act of such gross negligence that it alone ought to have disqualified him from the presidency.) Then there was that moment during the campaign where he was asked by a reporter whether he disavowed David Duke’s support. Trump claimed (falsely) never to have heard of Duke, and after being raked over the coals by the press for a couple of days he finally he issued a vague, anodyne disavowal.

    On Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017, the Trump White House infamously put out a statement that didn’t even mention Jews, an omission that bothered even pro-Trump Jewish organizations like the RJC and the ZOA. But in the end, the defense is the same: pleading the 5th. And, after all, anyone who dares suggest the possibility that Trump just might harbor anti-Jewish animus (or be using such animus to score points with some of his supporters) can be permanently shut up with the rejoinder “But but but but…. Javanka!” And when in doubt, his daughter or son-in-law can come forward and smile before the cameras and gush about how much Donald loves the Jews, just as he loves the Latinos and the Muslims and the Blacks (and just as Arpaio claims to have “deep respect for the Jewish people“).

    And meanwhile, all the usual suspects cheer, knowing the candidate is their man.