Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio expands his political wings

In recent months, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has tried to extend his political reach outside his home state of Arizona, where he has gained national notoriety for lightning-rod tactics to root out illegal immigrants.

With Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, SB 1070, rekindling national interest in border security, Arpaio has appeared in Kentucky and Kansas and elsewhere as an emblem of a stern law-and-order approach. On Sunday, he is scheduled to speak at a Republican lunch in the key primary state of New Hampshire, which has led some observers to wonder if he’s considering a presidential bid.

Last week Arpaio waded into the high-profile Nevada Senate race, cheering on Republican Sharron Angle, a “tea party” favorite locked in a tight contest with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

It may provide a test of how voters outside Arizona view Arpaio, who fancies himself “America’s toughest sheriff” and was sued this month by the Justice Department, which accused him of refusing to cooperate with a federal civil rights investigation.

“The sheriff potentially has a lot of appeal because he’s a single-issue person,” said Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada- Las Vegas. “He represents being tough on crime and tough on immigration, and I can see a lot of politicians wanting his endorsement.”

Arpaio has recently been touting the power of his support, saying it carried more weight than that of Republican Sen. John McCain, at least in Arizona. Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, won reelection in 2008 with 55% of the vote.

Though Arpaio mostly shied away from politicking in the last midterm election in 2006 — except for a measure setting living standards for veal calves and pregnant pigs — he has been particularly vocal this season.

He has been testing his political strength outside the Grand Canyon State by supporting candidates for Michigan governor, California Assembly and congressional seats in Florida and Missouri, among others. His political advisor, Chad Willems, said a number of GOP candidates have sought the sheriff’s backing, though his track record out of state has been less successful than in Arizona.

“He likes to spot underdogs and help those [who are] not necessarily part of the establishment. He doesn’t always pick the winner,” Willems said. The sheriff did not respond to a request for comment.

Though his endorsement of California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner made little difference in the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary — Meg Whitman won — his backing has been highly coveted in strongly Republican legislative districts, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book.

“He’s effective for safe Republican seats, but he’s too hot for a statewide candidate,” said Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant. “To win statewide in California you need a large Latino vote, and you’re not going to get a large Latino vote if you showcase him.”

Reid and Angle hold polar-opposite views on immigration, as they do on many issues. Though in 1993 Reid supported a bill that would have denied citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants, he later called it the “biggest mistake I ever made.”

Last week after Arpaio told the Associated Press he’d support Angle, Reid’s team mocked his statement as a “sure, who cares?” nod from an outsider. “Sen. Reid is proud to have the overwhelming endorsement of law enforcement right here in Nevada,” the Democrat’s spokesman Kelly Steele said.

Immigration could be a tricky issue for the embattled majority leader. Arizona’s tough law, much of which was put on hold by a federal judge, has the backing of a majority of Nevada voters, according to polling for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and KLAS-TV. Another survey showed stiff resistance to an immigration policy overhaul that included a path to citizenship.

Angle spokesman Jarrod Agen sums up Reid and immigration this way: “Sheriff Joe’s support helps tremendously because it highlights an issue in which Harry Reid stands against the mainstream majority of Nevadans.”

In May, a month after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, Arpaio went on a sort of victory tour through Las Vegas, trumpeting the measure and thrashing his critics. “I’m not a racist like people say I am,” he told reporters. “I have never gone on the street corner and grabbed someone because they look like they’re from another country.”

Though they don’t know each other well, Angle and Arpaio seem a natural pairing. As a state lawmaker, Angle led an unsuccessful attempt to make English Nevada’s official language. And when asked during the GOP primary battle about securing the U.S. border, she sometimes mentioned a particular name: “Sheriff Joe.”