The last time Joe Arpaio ran for office, he was trounced.
This was 2016, when Arpaio was looking to be reelected as sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., after having served in that position for six four-year terms. During that tenure, he gained national fame for what might charitably be described as his tough stance on immigration. Less charitably, his efforts have been described as abusive and racist. After he was subject to a variety of investigations and lawsuits, voters in the county apparently reached their fill of Arpaio and sent him packing.
This is not the last time he was in the news, of course. After being ordered to curtail his department’s racial-profiling practices and refusing to do so, Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. That conviction led to a pardon from longtime ally President Trump in August, setting the stage for an unexpected announcement from Arpaio on Tuesday: He’s going to run for Senate.
People run for the U.S. Senate for a lot of reasons. It keeps them in the news, if they’re into that sort of thing, which Arpaio is. It allows them to raise money, which, in turn, allows them to tour the state on someone else’s dime. It also can lead them to serving in the Senate.
Those are listed in the descending order of what Arpaio is likely to get out of his bid.
After all, Arpaio didn’t just lose in 2016, he got walloped. He lost to Democrat Paul Penzone by nearly 13 points in a county that Trump carried by about three points and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by more than 15 in 2012. In other words, Arpaio did 18 points worse than Trump and 28 points worse than McCain.
In fact, he got a lower percentage of the vote than Hillary Clinton, despite being a 24-year incumbent — and even got fewer actual votes.
Why does that matter in a statewide race? Because Maricopa is home to about 60 percent of the state’s population and, in the presidential and Senate races in 2016, made up about 60 percent of the vote total. If people in Maricopa County are skeptical of Arpaio, that’s an awfully tough starting point.
Sure, you might think, but 2018 is an off year, which historically favors Republicans. That’s generally true (though FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten has some new context for that argument). But in the more Democrat-friendly confines of 2016, he still underperformed other Republicans by a wide margin.
What’s more, 2018 is not shaping up to be a particularly Republican-friendly year. Literally every poll conducted over the past year shows Democrats with an advantage on the generic congressional ballot, extending into the double-digits in recent months. Democrats are poised to see significant gains in the House at this point, and it seems unlikely that Democratic voters would stay home if given the opportunity to again weigh in on the controversial Arpaio.
Especially given how he has managed to become even more closely aligned with Trump after the pardon. One key reason for Democratic enthusiasm is that Trump is so unpopular — even in Arizona. In August, a poll found that his performance in office was approved of by only 42 percent of Arizonans, including a relatively weak 74 percent of Republicans. More than half of the state disapproved, and there’s little reason to think that his numbers have improved.
Arpaio is explicitly tying himself to Trump, telling the Washington Examiner that “I’m a big supporter of President Trump.” At this point, he’s the second Trump supporter to declare his candidacy for the Republican nomination; the first, Kelli Ward, received a thumbs up from Trump on Twitter when she announced her plans to challenge Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has since announced that he would not seek a second term.
To win election to the Senate, Arpaio first needs to win the primary, and splitting the Trump base doesn’t seem like the best strategy to accomplish that.
So this is the plan, then. Run as a Trump supporter in a state where the president is unpopular at a moment when that unpopularity is emboldening members of the other party and do so despite having been crushed during an election in the state’s most populous county only two years ago.
Not likely to take Arpaio to Washington. But likely to take Arpaio where he most immediately wants to go: into the public eye. On that front, he can already declare victory.