How Joe Arpaio’s Return Could Haunt Trump in Battleground Arizona
WASHINGTON — As Donald Trump carried Arizona on his way to the White House four years ago, voters were simultaneously ushering another nationally renowned Republican with polarizing views on law enforcement and immigration out of office.
Now Joe Arpaio is back, mounting a campaign for his old job as sheriff of Maricopa County — the nation’s fourth-most populous county that could determine the outcome of the presidential election not just in Arizona, but nationally.
Republicans are warily eyeing the return of the 87-year-old Arpaio, who was pardoned by the president in 2017 for defying a court order and still calls Trump his “hero.” Democrats, meanwhile, view Arpaio’s crushing 13-point loss in 2016 as a harrowing omen for Trump this fall in a state that is quickly emerging as one of the most competitive 2020 battlegrounds.
And the possibility of Arpaio reappearing on the Republican ticket with Trump could further alienate the moderate suburban women and voters of color Democrats need to mobilize to win Arizona for the first time since 1996.
“For younger Latinos, it will make a difference,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democratic congressman from Phoenix who is Hispanic. “The voters that pushed out Joe Arpaio, those are going to be the ones who do the same thing to Donald Trump in Maricopa County.”
Republicans in the state are divided on whether Arpaio could hurt Trump from a down-ballot position. But the ex-sheriff still boasts nearly universal name recognition, a national fundraising network, another forthcoming book — and a strategy that tethers him to the president.
“President Trump, you know, supports me,” Arpaio said in an interview with McClatchy. After being pressed on that assertion, he later acknowledged in the interview the president has not endorsed in the sheriff’s race, but noted the vast number of supporters he had helped enlist for Trump over the years.
“Every day I talk about Trump. I plug him every day. I’m just saying I’m not asking him to get involved. But I plug him every day, more than anybody else in this country,” Arpaio said. “A lot of people don’t know I’m running for sheriff again.”
Apparently that includes some inside the Trump campaign.
“I didn’t even know he was running; I’ll take your word for it,” said Rick Gorka, who oversees communications for the GOP effort in battleground states. “I don’t give any thought to Joe Arpaio and didn’t know he was doing anything until you mentioned it on this call.”
Arpaio still must win the GOP primary in August to earn a rematch with Paul Penzone, the incumbent Democratic sheriff who has attracted significant Republican support and has been credited for his apolitical tenure.
“Those that I speak with definitely express a concern that he is a distraction and that he hurts any party stability. … He does draw the ticket down, not up,” said Penzone, who overcame a 9-to-1 spending deficit in his 2016 race against Arpaio. “I just think Arizona’s trying to find its way to the middle.”
For Arpaio to have any shot at a comeback, he will need to draft off of the president’s performance. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 3.5 points in Arizona 2016, but every public poll taken this year has shown him trailing Joe Biden.
The Trump campaign appears to be taking the threat seriously with 30 staffers in Arizona through the pandemic, approaching nearly 1 million contacts in a state with 3.9 million registered voters. They are keenly focused on the 180,000 voters who showed up for Trump in 2016 and then dropped off in 2018, when Democrats captured a U.S. Senate seat for the first time in 30 years.
“You can’t parachute staff in at the last minute and hope that they can organize, build relationships and do a functional get out the vote effort,” said Gorka. “You still have to have a full functioning campaign to get people out to the polls and the Democrats aren’t there yet.”
On Friday, Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon placed Arizona “at the top of the list” of the battleground states. Biden did an interview with the CBS affiliate in Phoenix last week, and his wife, Jill Biden, followed with a trio of virtual events with voters there.
But the presumptive Democratic nominee has yet to appoint an Arizona state director and is mostly relying on the nationally funded coordinated campaign with the state party that trained two dozen organizers last summer until a more formal structure is in place.
“We haven’t seen much so far,” said a Democratic consultant in Arizona, speaking of the Biden operation. “At the end of February I was nervous we were going to end up with Bernie Sanders at the top and a pretty good economy. That was pretty worrisome. Now that’s all gone.”
For some Republicans, it’s the Senate race between former astronaut Mark Kelly and appointed Sen. Martha McSally that is becoming more worrisome than Arpaio. One top Republican in the state argued that McSally is a drag on Trump because she lacks an enthusiastic following that can help whip up volunteers.
“There’s no love for her,” this consultant said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of his position in the party. “Each side is going to piss away $50 (million) to $60 million and she’s going to lose. I’ve already heard people talk about who’s going to run next cycle for Senate.”
The RealClearPolitics polling average places Kelly ahead of McSally by 8 points. McSally’s campaign did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment.
With a presidential race that is shaping up to be determined by a razor-thin margin and a Senate contest where their candidate is attempting to make up a considerable deficit, Arizona Republicans expressed a mix of bewilderment and anxiety about Arpaio’s reemergence.
“He’s not the Sheriff Joe figure that he was,” said Rae Chornenky, the chair of the Maricopa County Republican Party “Plus he’s gotten older. When he makes his appearances people are aware that time does take a toll.”
“He’s a very nice human being, but I don’t think there are a lot of people locally that were encouraging him to run,” noted Tyler Bowyer, a newly elected Republican National committeeman in the state. “2016 was peak negative Arpaio season and it didn’t stop people from voting for Donald Trump.”
©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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