Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio easily wins primary — but now faces his toughest general election in decades

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, left, and former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer greet Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Fountain Hills, Ariz., on March 19, 2016.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When the Republican presidential ticket pivoted to focus on illegal immigration this summer, Donald Trump pointed to the man who has come to embody the muscular enforcement approach of the 2000s — massive immigration raids, unremitting warnings about the dangers posed by illegal immigrants and bold public pronouncements about enforcing the rule of law.

But while Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County’s six-term sheriff, has become a national touchstone to hardcore immigration enforcement advocates, he is increasingly under duress on the home front.

Arpaio easily rolled over three primary challengers Tuesday in a race the Associated Press called less than half an hour after the polls closed at 8 p.m. In early returns, Arpaio had 67% of the vote. His closest challenger, Dan Saban, had just 26%.

Now, a general election battle looms against a Democratic Phoenix police officer who came within 6 percentage points of the veteran sheriff in the 2012 election.


Arpaio’s challengers on Tuesday included a retired sheriff’s deputy, the former commander of a sheriff’s posse and Saban, the former police chief of Buckeye, Ariz.

Based on fundraising, their chances appeared dim. Combined, all three challengers raised $85,000. Arpaio has a campaign war chest of $11.3 million he’s taking into the general election.

Arpaio’s message hasn’t changed much since his salad days of corralling groups of Latino drivers as part of immigration sweeps. But he has encountered a county, state and nation in which attitudes toward illegal immigration and immigration in general have softened since his election, but for brief spikes in anti-immigrant sentiment after Sept. 11 and during the recession.

Arpaio’s waning popularity corresponds with his deepening legal problems.

After a protracted eight-year battle that included allegations that Arpaio tried to spy on the federal judge overseeing a civil case alleging that Arpaio profiled Latino drivers on immigration patrols, the 84-year-old sheriff now faces a criminal investigation into his conduct while the case played out.

The judge determined that Arpaio had encouraged his deputies to subject Latino drivers to greater scrutiny during traffic stops than white drivers typically received. The judge ordered the sheriff to put an end to that practice of profiling.

Two years later, the judge found that Arpaio had continued the practice in violation of his order. At a Houston rally in 2014, Arpaio told supporters that he had violated the order “out of spite” and had arrested 500 people.


Arpaio later said in court filings that he had violated the order unknowingly.

The judge, G. Murray Snow, ruled that 19 times Arpaio intentionally violated his orders to end profiling of Latinos and called Arpaio’s brand of justice “unfair, partial and inequitable.”

The Arizona Republic newspaper’s editorial board was direct in its assessment of Arpaio’s fitness for office.

“Joe Arpaio has made a mockery of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office,” the board wrote in a July 30 editorial calling for voters to pick Saban in the primary.


The octogenarian who calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff” survived Tuesday, but poll numbers for his November election indicate that he once again will face a tight race.

An independent poll in Arizona has Democratic challenger Paul Penzone up 3 percentage points on Arpaio. When undecided voters were asked to choose one of the two, they overwhelmingly sided with Penzone.

“It appears that the ‘toughest sheriff’ in America, Joe Arpaio, is in the toughest race of his career,” said Nathan Sproul, managing director of Lincoln Strategy Group, in a message accompanying the July 22 poll results.

“The voters may be saying it’s finally time for a change. He still has plenty of time to right the ship, but needs to define Penzone quickly or it may be too late.”


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8:55 p.m.: This story was updated with election results.

This story was originally published at 2:30 p.m.