It's increasingly likely that Joe Arpaio won't be running for Maricopa County Sheriff in November.
After coming up just short on the night of the primary by around 500 votes — that margin stayed the same through the following day — the gap between Arpaio and another Republican candidate for sheriff, Arpaio's former chief deputy Jerry Sheridan, has widened considerably to around 4,000.
The county Elections Department reported at 5 p.m. today that about 30,099 ballots are left to process, including more than 26,000 early ballots.
Whoever wins will run in the general election against the Democratic incumbent, Sheriff Paul Penzone.
This year's bid was the latest of Arpaio's attempts to get back into a position of power since he was trounced by Penzone in the 2016 election. After being convicted of criminal contempt after disregarding a court order to stop racially profiling Latinos, then getting pardoned by President Trump in 2017, Arpaio lost a bid to replace former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake in 2018. Martha McSally won the Republican primary in that race, while Arpaio came in dead last. His 2020 campaign to regain his old job, at least in its early days, was largely funded by out-of-state donors.
During his lengthy tenure as sheriff from 1993 to 2016, Arpaio generated significant controversy for his anti-immigrant rhetoric and tough-on-crime policies. His mistreatment of county jail inmates, millions in public funds lost in misspending and legal payouts, and chronic discrimination against Latinos garnered national headlines, public outrage, and lawsuits — including a civil-rights action taken by the federal government over his agency's bias against Latinos. (Here's more of Phoenix New Times' extensive coverage of Arpaio.)
Paul Bentz, vice president of research and strategy at HighGround, a Phoenix political consulting firm, said that the neck-and-neck nature of the election results in the race for sheriff shows that Arpaio still has a sizable constituency. Arpaio had "die-hard followers well before Trump ever had die-hard followers," he said.
"Arpaio has a very strong base of people that still very much like him. He did a lot for the unincorporated areas. The MCSO was their police force — Sun City, for example," Bentz said. "He has a really strong following in some of those areas, and then he’s got a strong national following. Most of his money is nationally raised."
Bentz said that the close split between Arpaio and Sheridan shows that many Republican voters weren't so much turned off by Arpaio's practices during his tenure as sheriff as they were by his public personality.
"There’s a segment of the electorate that still would like Arpaio’s policies but don’t want his personality," he said. "The Republican party is still a party of law-and-order. It’s still a group that wants a lot of the things that the sheriff did."
Penzone, a retired Phoenix police officer, has kept a significantly lower and less politically polarizing profile than Arpaio ever did. His agency has still been a source of controversy and lawsuits, such as a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over allegedly horrendous COVID-19 protocols inside county jails and the fatal shooting of an unarmed woman during a traffic stop last summer.
But Bentz noted that Sheridan will still have trouble against Penzone, who won by a wide margin against Arpaio in 2016. Democratic participation in the primary spiked this year, he said.
"What we just saw in this primary is a massive uptick in Democrat participation," he said. "I think that will continue into the general election. It is more common now than it has been in the past for Democrats to be able to win Maricopa County."
In a news release issued the day after the primary election, Penzone touted some of his accomplishments, such as closing down Arpaio's Tent City jail and his agency's seizure of millions of dollars in illegal drugs. The sheriff positioned himself somewhat against Arpaio in a statement, despite the fact that the former sheriff was trailing Sheridan and the race hadn't been decided.
“As Sheriff of Maricopa County, I have removed politics and focused on restoring the Office to an ethical, professional, and transparent organization," Penzone said. "Under my leadership, we have quietly made considerable strides in the federal court orders, we have reduced lawsuits and reckless costs to taxpayers while implementing innovative and effective enforcement tactics to target dangerous fugitives."