By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - The Arizona sheriff famous for his tough stance on illegal immigration and keeping jail inmates in tents easily won his Republican primary on Tuesday.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is seeking election to a seventh term as the top lawman for the area around Phoenix, won about 66 percent of the vote, well ahead of ex-police chief and three-time opponent Dan Saban, according to unofficial election results posted online by the county.

Also on the Republican primary ballot were Wayne Baker, a retired deputy sheriff, and Marsha Ann Hill, an ex-sheriff’s volunteer.

Arpaio is slated to face Democrat Paul Penzone, who was unopposed in his party's primary, in the general election. Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer who is expected to present a tough challenge to Arpaio in November, lost to the longtime sheriff in 2012 by six percentage points.

Arpaio, 84, was expected to win his primary despite a judge’s request that criminal contempt charges be brought against him stemming from a 2007 racial profiling case where he was found to have violated the constitutional rights of Latino motorists.

    The investigation and possible prosecution was turned over to the U.S. Justice Department last week. It was not clear when a decision would be made.

Arpaio, who styles himself as America’s toughest sheriff, said his looming legal battles apparently had no effect on the primary race.

”I think the people understand that they should not believe everything they hear,” Arpaio told Reuters in a telephone interview. “They support me as they always have and that feels good.”

    Saban has called on Arpaio to resign, saying the sheriff has “soiled his badge” and made himself ineffective as a lawman.

Saban declined comment on the election results through a spokesman, adding that he would issue a statement on Wednesday morning.

    Arpaio, along with three others, could face incarceration and fines if convicted of any criminal charges. Arpaio and his second-in-command, Gerard Sheridan, already have been cited and admitted to civil contempt.

    The charges center on unlawful traffic stops and detentions by deputies of Latino drivers for 18 months after the judge ordered them to cease.

Opponents also have targeted the profiling lawsuit’s high cost to the county, which will have spent an estimated $54 million on the case by next summer.

(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Toby Chopra)