The Republican Primary for Jeff Flake’s Senate Seat is a Hot Mess

It features charges of assault, drunken karaoke, and bribery. And that’s just a start.

From left: Martha McSally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Kelli WardMother Jones illustration

On a Thursday evening in early August, Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff and current Republican candidate for US Senate from Arizona, dropped by a community center in Phoenix for his first public campaign event in weeks.

The host, John Rodriguez, was a local news columnist, professional sports agent, and longtime Arpaio critic, who promised—according to the announcement—there would be “NO questions off limits as per our mutual agreement.” Given the general tenor of the campaign to date, fireworks seemed likely.

The Republican primary to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), which will be decided on Tuesday, has been a glimpse into what happens when internet comment threads swallow a political movement. In the final month of the race, Arpaio’s campaign has accused one top rival, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, of assault; intoxication; and bribery. Ward’s campaign has, in turn, labeled Arpaio “sick and sad” and suggested “God will weigh in” on the 86-year-old ex-sheriff. In doing so, they have helped make possible the one scenario they both agree is untenable—a likely primary victory for Rep. Martha McSally, a favorite of Washington Republicans who once called Trump “disgusting” but now embraces his administration almost as tightly as they do. The timing couldn’t be worse. For the first time in decades, a Democrat, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, is leading in the polls for an Arizona Senate seat—a race that could hold the key to which party controls the upper chamber.

Fifteen minutes after the event was supposed to start, the rows of seats in the small rec room were almost entirely empty. The campaign entourage and a few members of the press outnumbered voters. And it turned out that some subjects were, in fact, off-limits. When the q-and-a wrapped, about half an hour ahead of schedule, two questions written out beforehand on note cards had still gone un-asked. Each captured the state of Arpaio’s campaign in their own unique way. A woman named Susan wanted to know if Arpaio was being taken advantage of by his campaign staff. The other was from “Jack,” who asked: “What happened with Borat?”

What happened with Borat, in the broadest sense, was this: for the first time in months, people were actually talking about a man who had once held the most populous county in the state in his fist. Just days before he took up the microphone in Phoenix, Arpaio had appeared in an episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series, “Who Is America.” The comedian, now in character as a Finnish media personality named OMGWhizzBoyOMG, asked Arpaio if he would accept a blow job from Trump. Arpaio said that he would. It was not, perhaps, the optimal answer to the question, but it was in keeping with a campaign that has been a blunder at every junction.

It wasn’t always this way. Had his town hall been held two years ago—before Arpaio was defeated by a Democratic challenger, convicted by a federal judge of defying a court order to stop racial profiling, and subsequently pardoned by Trump—he might have been mobbed by protestors or supporters, either of which would suit his purposes just fine. During his 24-year tenure as sheriff, Arpaio cultivated a reputation as the most notorious law-enforcement officer in America, trailed unfailingly by an entourage of television cameras, Republican dignitaries, and lawsuits.

The lawlessness with which Arpaio made his name would eventually prove his undoing. A 2011 Department of Justice investigation found that he “engages in a systemic disregard for basic constitutional protections” by targeting Latino residents, whom his detention officers variously described as “wetbacks” and “Mexican bitches.” (His refusal to halt discriminatory practices was what led to his conviction.) Beside the immigration sweeps, there was everything else—wrongful death lawsuits; “Tent City,” the massive outdoor jail Arpaio himself described as a “concentration camp,” where inmates baked in 120-degree heat; an attention-seeking investigation into President Barack Obama’s citizenship. While his department zealously targeted immigrants (and people it thought looked like immigrants), 400 sex crimes went unsolved in Arpaio’s jurisdiction, a statistic so staggering that for maybe the only time in his career, he apologized. Arpaio once put two alt-weekly reporters in a cage for reporting too critically on him—that one cost the county $3.75 million.

As with other Republicans who have faced legal trouble in recent years—including the West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship and the president himself—Arpaio has cast himself, with some success, as the victim of a political “witch hunt.” At the town hall, like so many other forums, he described his conviction as a “Mickey Mouse misdemeanor.” Elsewhere he has blamed his downfall on Barack Obama and George Soros. The first poll of the race after Arpaio announced his candidacy last fall suggested voters might buy it—he was only two points back of the lead.

But in the months since, the ex-lawman has lost ground. He’s raised a fraction of what he used to spend on county sheriff races, and embarked on a series of unusual campaign ventures. In July, hoping to recapture some of his tough-on-immigrant magic, he planned a trip to Mexico to meet with local government officials, accompanied by a team of beefy but slightly past-expired security guards he called the “Arpaio Special Ops.” He got to the border and balked, alleging that there was a $10,000 price on his head. A few days later, Arpaio filmed a Facebook video at the border with Shiva Ayyadurai, an independent candidate for US Senate in Massachusetts, who claims to be the inventor of email. Arpaio and Ayyadurai have endorsed each other. Ditto Arpaio and Courtland Sykes, a losing US Senate candidate from Missouri who is best-known for declaring in a manifesto that he didn’t want his daughters to turn into “nail-biting manophobic hell-bent feminist she devils.” As recently as 2012, an Arpaio endorsement was described as “the hottest endorsement of the Republican [presidential] race”; now he gets this guy:

Arpaio’s most natural rival in the three-candidate field is Ward, an emergency-room doctor who previously challenged Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary two years ago. Ward attacked McCain during that campaign as a “weak” and “old” man. After McCain announced that he had cancer last year, she doubled down, suggesting that he should “step aside” so she could be appointed to his seat. McCain died on Saturday. 

Ward was the right-wing champion of last resort in 2016, after a handful of bigger-name Republican elected officials passed on the primary. And it showed. McCain and his allies covered the airwaves with ads highlighting her use of state resources to hold a public forum on the conspiracy theory that airplanes were dispersing mind-control chemicals over the state in order to subjugate the populace. One ad dubbed her “Chemtrail Kelli”:

Still, she got nearly 40 percent of the vote against perhaps the most famous politician the state has ever produced, a measure, in the year of Trump, of the intense level of dissatisfaction rank-and-file conservatives had with their elected officials. Ward announced her campaign against Flake even before the 2016 election came to a close and in the short window the next year, between when Flake theatrically renounced Trump and when he announced he was quitting, she was an unlikely front-runner. The high water mark came last fall, when Trump tweeted, “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake.” Twelve months later, no further words of encouragement have been forthcoming, but it is still the pinned Tweet on her Twitter page and features prominently on her mailers.

Ward had a good chance at beating Flake and still has a puncher’s chance on Tuesday. Several members of Congress, including Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, have endorsed her. But she’s still, at heart, the ex-state senator who held a hearing on chemtrails. Over the final weekend of the campaign she went on a bus tour with not just Gosar and Rand Paul, but also Mike Cernovich, the alt-right fixture who helped popularize the fake theory that prominent Washington Democrats were running a pedophile ring out of a pizza joint. Ward said she didn’t know much about Cernovich’s views but that she didn’t care either, because he had an important audience she was hoping to reach. It was almost verbatim what she’d told me two years ago about her appearance on Alex Jones’ show.

Because Arpaio and Ward both lay claim to being the true Trump candidate in the race, there is an existential struggle at the heart of their feud—the existence of the other makes the success of either impossible. Two weeks ago, anti-Ward forces began circulating a video that purported to show Ward singing Grandmaster Flash “drunk…in an alleged swingers bar in Lake Havasu.” The video came from two former Ward staffers who had defected to Arpaio’s campaign. A few days later, an Arpaio staffer accused Ward of assaulting the candidate at a county fair. (Ward allegedly threw a campaign pin at the former sheriff; her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) The most serious allegation, which Arpaio repeated in Phoenix almost as an aside, was that Ward had attempted to offer him money to leave the race.

Wait a second, bribery?

It turns out it’s complicated. “There are reports out there that a certain Senate candidate on the other side sent one of her people in and made Joe an offer and that was that, and obviously, that’s where we’re leaving it, he’s still in the race,” his spokeswoman, Jennifer Lawrence, told me afterwards. Had the campaign actually filed a complaint about it? Well, no. But a former Ward volunteer had. Who had the complaint been submitted to? “The FEC,” said campaign manager Chris Hegstrom, referring to the Federal Election Commission. “Actually, wait, it wasn’t the FEC it was submitted to,” he said—it was the Department of Justice.

“Look, we’re just trying to run a regular campaign,” he said. “We’re here to win. We don’t have time to get bogged down in those things. If someone felt there was something wrong, okay, there probably was. But we just want to move forward.”

Except for Arpaio, who talked about it again the next day. In a normal race, an attempted bribe to exit the race seems like it’d be a big story, but Arpaio was also the man who claimed to have uncovered new evidence about Obama’s birth certificate. Big allegations require a certain amount of documentation, which at this point seems like it’ll never come. (Ward’s campaign has denied that any sort of offer was made.)

Since Trump appeared on the national stage, much has been made about Trumpism without Trump—that the president’s agenda of white identity politics could be even more potent with a more refined personality behind it. But in Arizona, at least, Trumpism without the singular force of Trump to hold it together gets to the Lord of the Flies stage really quick.

Through all of this, McSally, a former fighter pilot, has largely and wisely kept quiet. After flirting with immigration reform earlier in her career, and at one point even supporting legal status for Dreamers, she reversed course in the runup to the Senate campaign. She now backs the wall (McSally has joked that she’d extend it to protect her state from California), and in her campaign announcement video she bragged at length of not having bowed “to Shariah law.” Trump even makes an appearance, calling her “my friend” and “the real deal.” (Trump has not endorsed; it was a clip from last year’s Air Force commencement speech, held in Colorado Springs.)

McSally declined to debate her two primary rivals, and the two Republican super-PACs that are supporting her, Senate Leadership Fund and Defend Arizona, have ignored Arpaio and focused their fire on Ward. In a pair of ads virtually recycled from the 2016 campaign, they attack “Chemtrail Kelli” for her fringe conspiracy theories and occasional libertarian streak. One ad, similar to a pro-McCain spot from two years ago, equates a bill she pushed in the state legislature that would have blocked local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with the National Security Agency with the conservative bête noir of sanctuary cities. Everything is about the Wall now, even when the Wall never comes up:

Arpaio’s campaign is equal parts focused on his own career in Maricopa County and on his early and unrestrained support of President Donald Trump. Arpaio supported Trump’s campaign months before his nomination seemed likely. He spoke at the Republican National Convention. And he was Trump’s first presidential pardon. He has even borrowed one of Trump’s campaign tactics, touring the state with so-called “Angel families,” who had loved ones killed by undocumented residents. (Two of them spoke before Arpaio at the town hall.) But Trump has not endorsed his friend’s campaign—even when the alternative is a congresswoman who still won’t say who she voted for in 2016.

The sheriff wouldn’t take questions from Mother Jones after the event in Phoenix, but when I asked his campaign about the president’s silence on the race, his spokeswoman hedged. “Listen, he has a busy job, he’s the president of the United States,” Lawrence said.

It’s always possible. There’s 24 hours left. But for the first time in his career, the emotion elicited by Arpaio is not anger or fear or even respect. It’s something more damning—ambivalence.

Image credits: Bill Clark/CQ/ZUMA; Jack Kurtz/ZUMA; Jeff Malet/Newscom/ZUMA; Getty