Convicted criminal pardoned by Trump locked in tight race for Arizona sheriff

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Joe Arpaio trails by 541 votes in the GOP primary for sheriff of Maricopa County.

Arizona has grown more politically moderate in the past five years, but Republican primary voters haven't entirely abandoned Joe Arpaio, the six-term sheriff of metro Phoenix who lost the job in 2016 amid voter frustration over his legal troubles and headline-grabbing tactics.

The 88-year-old Republican lawman — known for launching immigration crackdowns — was locked in a tight primary race for sheriff as he tries to remain politically relevant in the state that now has a majority-Democratic congressional delegation, its first Democratic U.S. senator since the mid-1990s, and a growing Latino population.

In what Arpaio acknowledges could be his last political race, he was trailing Jerry Sheridan, his former second-in-command, by 541 votes as the count continued Wednesday.

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Mike O'Neil, a longtime Arizona pollster who has followed Arpaio's career, said the lawman remains in contention because he has strong name recognition and is still popular in some Republican circles — even though he was trounced in 2016 and finished third in the 2018 U.S. Senate primary.

"It's no longer the large swell of people it once was, but there are folks who still get worked up over immigration," O'Neil said.

Arpaio based much of his campaign around his support of Donald Trump, who spared Arpaio a possible jail sentence when he pardoned his contempt of court conviction. Arpaio disobeyed a court order to stop traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.

During his campaign, Arpaio vowed to bring back practices that either the courts have deemed illegal or his successor has ended, including Arpaio's trademark immigration crackdowns and use of jail tents in the Arizona heat.

Arpaio said he hasn't been garnering media attention like he used to, and many voters didn't know he was trying to get his old job back until they saw his name on their ballots. He insists he is good health, even though his critics have made his age an issue in the race. If he were to win and serve a full four-year term, Arpaio would be approaching his 93rd birthday when it ended.

Arpaio acknowledged that he's facing a different type of voter than he did four years ago.

"There is a lot of consternation going on in our nation," Arpaio said Wednesday. "You know it. I know it. It's a different ball game in this country and this county. But I still think I will be able to pull this out."

Sheridan, who served as Arpaio's top aide during his last six years as sheriff, didn't expect the primary to be so close. He said his campaign lost some of its momentum when the pandemic forced the end of in-person campaign events. He also pointed out that Arpaio has spent about $1 million in the race, compared to Sheridan's $90,000.

"It's so much more, and I'm beating him," Sheridan said of Arpaio's fundraising advantage. "And he's the one with the 100% name recognition, not me."

Arpaio's political liabilities have been piling up for years and include $147 million in taxpayer-funded legal costs, a failure to investigate more than 400 sex-crime complaints made to the sheriff's office, and launching criminal investigations against judges, politicians, and others who were at odds with him.

The winner of the GOP primary will go on to face Paul Penzone, who crushed Arpaio in 2016 and ran unopposed in this year's Democratic primary.

O'Neil believes Arpaio and Sheridan would both get "whooped" by the more low-profile Penzone in the November general election.

It's unclear whether Arpaio's steadfast support of Trump is a political advantage or liability for the former sheriff, whose political career tanked as Trump's was taking off.

"Will that hurt? I don't care," said Arpaio, who called Trump his hero. "It wouldn't change my campaign. If he was at 3% in the polls, I would still support him."