PHOENIX (Reuters) – Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who built a reputation as an opponent of illegal immigration and found an ally in President Donald Trump, was in a virtual dead heat late on Tuesday in a bid to win his old job in the Republican primary.
Arpaio, who called himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” was narrowly trailing his former chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, in early returns in the four-way contest.
Sheridan had garnered 122,094 votes or 36.39 percent of the votes, with Arpaio receiving 121,578 votes or 36.23 votes, according to the county’s election department.
In 2016, Arpaio, 88, suffered a landslide defeat in his re-election bid for Maricopa County sheriff – a position he had held for 24 years. Two years later, he lost a race to fill the seat of Republican U.S. Senator John McCain.
Arpaio was damaged by a series of court judgments that left local taxpayers on the hook for $146 million.
He was found guilty of criminal contempt of court in 2017 by a federal judge who ruled that he had willfully violated a 2011 injunction barring his officers from stopping and detaining Latino motorists solely on suspicion that they were in the country illegally. Trump pardoned Arpaio before sentencing, the first pardon of his presidency.
The winner of the primary will face Democrat Paul Penzone, the incumbent, in November. Penzone easily beat Arpaio in the 2016 general election.
Arpaio has vowed to continue the policing practices that made him a controversial figure in Arizona and beyond.
“Being sheriff now is more important than ever with all this chaos on the streets,” he told Reuters. “It’s time to bring back some law and order to the county.”
Political strategists are watching the race for signs of how receptive Arpaio’s hardline messaging on immigration and law and order – mirroring Trump’s – will be to voters.
Recent polls show Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic candidate, with a slight edge over Trump in Arizona, which has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1948.
Since Trump won Arizona in 2016, suburban voters in Maricopa County, which is the country’s fastest-growing county and includes part of Phoenix, have soured on him, the state’s Democratic-leaning Latino population has continued growing, and transplants from more liberal places have helped Democrats add 60,000 more to their rolls than Republicans.
(Reporting by David Schwartz; writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Leslie Adler and Gerry Doyle)