SADDLEBROOKE, Ariz. — Each of the Republicans running for Senate in Arizona this year claims a special bond with President Trump, but only one describes it as a supernatural connection beyond rational explanation.
“I can read his mind without even talking to him. I think he may be reading mine,” said the former Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio. “Is there something that goes through the airwaves? Mental telepathy?”
Such assertions would be a surprise coming from any candidate other than the national provocateur who trademarked the phrase “America’s Toughest Sheriff” in January after losing reelection, being convicted of criminal contempt of court and then receiving a presidential pardon from Trump.
But Arpaio, 85, who aims to become the oldest first-term senator in U.S. history, is hoping that this familiar approach of shock and awe helps accomplish exactly what his “hero,” Trump, achieved two years ago: upending conventional wisdom, outraging liberals and destabilizing the Republican establishment.
That makes the Senate primary in Arizona a particularly concentrated test not only for the Republican Party, but also for the continued viability of Trumpism as a political style.
The two men have, after all, long traveled a similar road from a distance, sharing the same obsession with their own media coverage, parallel claims of persecution from biased judges, an affinity for reality television and a focus on railing against immigrant threats.
“The more you trash me,” Arpaio likes to tell reporters, “the more votes I get.”
They even share a birthday, June 14, which Arpaio makes sure to mention at his campaign events. Arpaio’s cellphone has rung for years with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” — a song, he points out, that Trump chose for the first dance with his wife during inaugural festivities last year.
“There is a silent majority out there, and that’s why he won,” Arpaio said at an event at a dun-colored retirement community here in February. “In fact, that’s why I won.”
Such comments have raised concerns of Senate Republican leaders, who worry about holding on to the seat held by Jeff Flake, who is retiring, in a difficult November general election. The likely Democratic candidate, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, has cast herself as a moderate with broad-based appeal in a state where a majority of voters — but a small share of Republicans — disapprove of Trump’s presidential performance.
Early polls for the Aug. 28 primary show Arpaio grabbing between one-third and one-fifth of the electorate, behind the establishment-backed front-runner, Rep. Martha McSally, a former Air Force combat pilot, and ahead of another conservative insurgent, state Sen. Kelli Ward, who boasts the endorsements of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Fox News host Sean Hannity.
The showdown in Arizona has, at minimum, given Arpaio one more turn in the national spotlight. It’s an idea that clearly excites him — which he explained in sometimes inflated terms during hours of interviews with The Washington Post in early February as he drove across the state for a campaign event.
The possibility, and peril, that Republicans could be playing defense for not one but two Senate seats in Arizona this fall has not escaped Arpaio’s notice, given that Sen. John McCain is battling brain cancer and has been absent from Washington since December.
If McCain leaves his seat before the end of May, state law calls for an election in November. If he leaves after that point, the governor’s temporary appointment would extend through 2020.
“That could swing the whole Senate,” Arpaio said at one point in a car driven by an aide, as he sat without a seat belt, watching the scrubland spotted with saguaro cactuses whiz by outside. “Two Democrats from Arizona — that would be it. So this is a bigger race than me or the people running. This is to hold the Senate.”
In 1990, Trump described his marketing philosophy to Playboy magazine in the terms of a carnival barker: “The show is Trump, and it’s sold-out performances everywhere.” Three years later, Arpaio launched his own spectacle as the newly elected sheriff of Maricopa County.
The two men did not know each other and rarely interacted until Arpaio appeared at a Trump presidential campaign rally in July 2015. They have since professed public affection.
“I am running now because of Trump,” Arpaio said. “Because he needs help.”
At the White House, Trump has expressed interest in getting involved in the Arizona primary race, saying he could help either Arpaio or Ward. To date, his advisers have persuaded him to stay on the sidelines, as aides have reached out to McSally.
In the meantime, Arpaio continues to spend his time, like his role model, thinking up attention-grabbing ideas.
“Actually, the president should make me the press secretary,” he said after the event at the SaddleBrooke Republican Club, where he drew a crowd much bigger than his rival Ward, who spoke there in January. “That would be a great combination, what a great combination. I’ll have all those reporters eating out of my hand, you know that.”
There are other outside-the-box proposals: If elected, Arpaio would establish an official Senate office on the Mexican border to better care for the constituent needs of the Border Patrol. He also continues to maintain that he has proof that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery, even though Trump long ago abandoned the issue. (Arpaio maintains that financier George Soros spent against him in his 2016 sheriff’s campaign to protect Obama from the birth-certificate charge.)
Arpaio also doubts that the former president attended Harvard Law School.
“Do you have his transcripts or his record?” he asked when the topic came up. He even raises, without prompting, old controversies — as when he called his former tent jail a “concentration camp.” “Sometimes I am my own worst enemy with diarrhea of the mouth, especially with the media,” he says. “Is Trump like that?”
Before moving to Arizona, Arpaio was a beat cop in Washington and Las Vegas, and a federal drug enforcement agent, with foreign postings in Mexico City and Ankara, Turkey. As sheriff he worked to attract headlines and television coverage, which he carefully catalogued and stored away — or framed and hung on his office wall. He dressed his inmates in pink underwear, made them live in tents under a neon “vacancy” sign, and created the nation’s only female chain gang.
The point, he said, was crime deterrence, but he also admits to self-promotion that made him a national celebrity. He cut salt and pepper, coffee and pornography from prisoners’ diets and restricted television access to the Disney Channel and a couple of other offerings.
Under his supervision, reality television shows were welcomed into the sheriff’s department, including an Animal Planet series, one starring actor Steven Segal, and a hidden camera production called “Smile . . . You’re Under Arrest,” which lured wanted people into activities such as modeling clothes or getting a spa treatment before they were surprised with arrest on felony warrants.
In the later years of his career, his media efforts tended to focus on the issue of illegal immigration, bringing him a new level of national recognition and legal problems that eventually led to his 2016 election defeat. He created a telephone hotline so citizens could report “illegal aliens” and launched “crime suppression” sweeps in majority-Latino communities.
The Justice Department found in 2011 that he “engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of law enforcement and jail activities that discriminated against Latinos.” In 2013, a federal judge ruled in a civil case that Arpaio had violated the constitutional rights of Latinos by targeting them during raids and traffic stops — and blocked him from further immigration detentions. Years later, a different federal judge found Arpaio had violated that order, leading to the contempt of court conviction.
Arpaio’s approach has not moderated as a result. And he has always denied racist motives. On his way to the SaddleBrooke event, he stopped for lunch at a Subway near his office in Fountain Hills, where his food was prepared by three amiable white employees. “You notice?” he asked a reporter. “I’ll tell you something later.”
Back in the car, he prefaced an explanation by saying he wanted to speak “diplomatically.”
“When we used to go into these places, about 99 percent were here illegally,” he said of retail workers in Arizona. But his enforcement actions and Trump’s subsequent immigration crackdown, he argued, had changed things. “You can go into Subway and these places and see young college kids working for the tuition, you know, the American kids,” he said.
Asked how he knew they were not undocumented immigrants from a European country, he admitted he could be wrong.
“They could be here illegally, too,” he said.
But he was frank about his hope that the state can continue to attract new residents to counteract the expected increase in Arizona’s Democratic-leaning Latino population, which official demographers expect to rise to 42 percent in 2050, from 31 percent in 2015.
“We don’t want to make it look like California with the crime and the very liberal, high taxes,” Arpaio said. “Maybe more people will move here from Florida and Chicago so you will still have a big population that counteracts more people coming from other countries that are living there. I don’t think it will be flooded here like L.A. and other places with minorities.”
Arpaio blames judges for his legal problems and says he is working on a letter for Attorney General Jeff Sessions that will shed further light on his improper prosecution. Even in this, he claims a tie to Trump, noting that the president once claimed that a “Mexican” judge — who was American-born and of Mexican heritage — could not fairly rule in a case against him.
“I understand where he was going. I had the same problem,” said Arpaio, referencing his successful effort to push one judge he faced to recuse herself because her sister worked for a Latino rights organization.
That sort of talk has set off alarm bells in Washington. The Republican opposition research firm America Rising PAC, which has ties to groups that support Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has been videotaping appearances by both Arpaio and Ward in the state, a clear sign of a coming onslaught.
Arpaio struggled at times during the day to remember proper names, calling McSally “McNally” and incorrectly calling the “broken windows” policing philosophy “open windows.” Asked how many seats there are in Congress, he guessed incorrectly: “There are 356.” But he said he has no fear of the tracking. And he would not support McConnell if elected to the Senate.
“I mean, they have a lot of ammunition, come on,” he said of the prospect of a nasty campaign this year, including examples of prisoner mistreatment in his jails. “You know, ‘tent city,’ ‘people dying in jails,’ ‘kills people’ — I mean they got a list, and they have been blasting me for years. So when I decided to run, I knew. I’m not stupid.”
Such talk might be fodder for the Republican establishment that hopes to defeat him, but the defiance also continues to attract people to him. Before the event in SaddleBrooke, Thomas Sorenson, a supporter who moved to Arizona from Chicago, approached Arpaio to get his signature on a January 2017 issue of the National Enquirer, which featured an article on the sheriff’s claims about Obama’s birth certificate.
“This is the only newspaper that will publish me,” Arpaio said triumphantly, before asking his campaign aide why he did not have a copy of this edition in his files.
As Arpaio scribbled his signature, Sorenson thanked Arpaio for standing up to Obama.
“He came after me, you know,” Arpaio told Sorenson, referring to the Obama Justice Department’s decision to investigate him and prosecute him for contempt of court.
“Yeah, but Trump came to your rescue,” Sorenson said. “So he lost.”
Arpaio could not have agreed more. “He didn’t win the war yet,” he said.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.