Just when Republicans thought their 2018 midterm cycle couldn’t possibly get any worse, enter Sheriff Joe. With his latest announcement, Joe Arpaio threw his hat into the Arizona Senate ring, a Republican field that already includes Kelli Ward, a former state senator who some are calling Roy Moore 2.0. Right now, there’s only one question: What the hell can the GOP do to salvage Jeff Flake’s seat?
Arpaio, who held the position of Maricopa County sheriff for 24 years, lost his 2016 reelection bid by more than 130,000 votes. With multiple lawsuits and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, Arizona taxpayers finally had enough of Arpaio’s antics. Being soundly defeated for an office he’d held for so long spoke volumes.
Arpaio said in a statement this week that he was running for Senate “for one unwavering reason: to support the agenda and policies of President Donald Trump in his mission to Make America Great Again.” That statement, and his entire decision to run, is being questioned by many, including Senator Flake himself. Flake bluntly stated that he didn’t take Arpaio’s announcement seriously, telling reporters, “Write about it fast because it won’t last long.”
Those remarks have lead many to believe he meant Arpaio’s campaign is nothing more than a scam, set up as a shell for donations which will only be used to cover legal expenses. No matter the real motive, the prevailing view is that the Republican primary will be very bad for the GOP, both in Arizona and nationally.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already made it clear that Kelli Ward, who announced her candidacy way back in October 2016, wasn’t on his Christmas card list. Senate leadership launched attack ads against Ward last August that labeled Ward as “Chemtrail Kelli"—a reminder that Ward had once hosted a town hall as state senator to address concerns over mind-altering chemicals potentially spread by commercial airplanes. (Yes, that happened.)
With Arpaio’s entry into the race, the GOP has a bigger problem: two candidates whom they believe won’t win against a Democrat.
But with Arpaio’s entry into the race, the GOP has a much bigger problem: two candidates whom they believe won’t win against a solid Democratic candidate. Unfortunately for them, they are dealing with a conservative constituency in Arizona that will likely—and enthusiastically—nominate either Arpaio or Ward anyway. The only hope may lie in U.S. Representative Martha McSally, who many are expecting to announce a run for the Senate.
McSally, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who refused to endorse Trump during his presidential campaign, now appears to be courting the president’s favor. She’ll a tough road in garnering his support, however, due to Trump’s relationship with Arpaio and the fact that he openly endorsed Ward too, during her 2016 Senate run against John McCain. (She lost by 12 points.)
This time, Ward’s healthy relationship with Steve Bannon might sink any opportunities for a second endorsement. Even so, considering the president’s embarrassment after endorsing Luther Strange and then Roy Moore in Alabama, Trump may decide to stay out of this fight altogether.
Conservative groups like FreedomWorks, Citizens United and the Tea Party Patriots have already declared war on McSally, with FreedomWorks calling her "part of the problem.” It’s clear that Ward or Arpaio will latch on such talking points and toss them out like red meat to Trump worshippers in the Grand Canyon State.
Therein lies the problem for Republicans: how will they deal with this mess? If they oppose the campaigns of these two Trump allies, they are labeled RINOS and risk having other, more moderate members primaried by an alt-right backed candidate in the future. If they embrace a campaign other than McSally’s, they risk losing another formerly safe seat to Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Even worse for the establishment? Having either Ward or Arpaio represent them in Washington, D.C.
The only way for the GOP to salvage this Senate seat may rest on Trump.
Allowing Trump to hijack and bully the party during the presidential primary is what opened this pandora’s box in the first place. It also allows Ward’s and Arpaio’s supporters feel more relevant than they are—and that makes them dangerous to the success of the GOP as a whole, because the two candidates they are supporting are bonafide losers. Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected both Ward and Arpaio in 2016. Either of them winning their party’s nomination for Senate is almost a guaranteed loss for the party in a general election.
In the end, the only way for the GOP to salvage this Senate seat may rest on Trump. He would have to turn his back on two allies he has supported (and one he pardoned) and endorse a more moderate choice. In doing so, he would also have to embrace a truce with Flake, which is unlikely. This strategy in itself is no guarantee—just ask Luther Strange—as it could potentially backfire with moderate anti-Trump Republicans in Arizona who decide to stay home.
Arizona will be an intriguing, thrilling battleground to watch over the coming months, this year’s Alabama if you will. And it will be more proof of just how the relevatory the 2016 presidential race was. It may also very well again change the political landscape, from now through 2020.