Exit Interview is an IJR original series exploring the 2018 midterms by examining what didn’t work in order to better understand what did. Throughout the election year, IJR will give candidates who came up short in their respective races an opportunity to speak their minds after the dust settles.
Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff who lost his Senate bid last week in devastating fashion, says the “silent majority” that swept President Donald Trump into office stood him up at the ballot box.
“I didn’t pick up what I thought was going to save me in this race,” Arpaio told IJR in an exclusive and candid interview following his campaign’s defeat. The former sheriff recalls introducing Trump at a 2015 rally in Phoenix and receiving a standing ovation when he called out to the “silent majority.”
“I thought, wait a minute, [Trump] won, he pulled it off, and maybe I can pull this one off, too,” Arpaio said. “But they didn’t show up.”
The self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” had previously enjoyed bragging about having never lost a Republican primary. But last week, that changed.
Arpaio, who notoriously opened “Tent City” jail and racially profiled and detained citizens, came in third in the Republican primary to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) upcoming retirement.
Not only did Arpaio lose big, but by receiving just 17 percent of the vote in Maricopa County, the very people he served for 24 years delivered a definitive rebuke of a man who once wielded a tight grip on the community.
“I’m a loser, right? You calling me a loser? I’m not a loser,” Arpaio, whom Trump pardoned in 2017, told IJR in an interview in which the former sheriff also discussed not receiving an endorsement from the president, Sen. John McCain’s passing, and his political future following his failed run for Senate.
IJR: What are your thoughts after the primary? Things didn’t go your way. Walk me through your thoughts the day after?
JOE ARPAIO: Well, I knew I was late coming into the race. I knew it would be somewhat of a tough battle. But the main reason I did it was to defend our president. I decided to run because there was so much heat against him.
Not just for that, but to do something for the people of Arizona. I would have done it for six years, and that would be it.
Is there one factor or issue that you think led to you coming in third?
Well, like I said, I got in late. My two opponents had millions of dollars. I had never lost a Republican primary. I was against some tough odds. I think some people were concerned about my age.
But I was counting on the popularity that I have and the silent majority, but it was tough fighting those millions and millions of dollars by my two opponents.
But why would you ask me? I’m a loser, right? You calling me a loser? I’m not a loser.
I didn’t say you were a loser.
I know you didn’t tell me that, but I’m thinking that maybe you’re thinking it. So I’m going to tell you I’m not a loser. I just happened to lose this primary, but I’m not done yet because I’ve got a lot of life in me even though the innuendos is that I’m an old guy. You know, people say he’s […] I forgot how old I am. I know I look like I’m 60 because I drink the Italian olive oil.
Well, I didn’t pick up what I thought was going to save me in this race. I really thought that I would bring more of a turnout from the silent majority people. When I introduced Trump at his first rally in Phoenix, I got a standing ovation when I said there’s a silent majority out there. And I thought, “Wait a minute, he won, he pulled it off, and maybe I can pull this one off, too.” But they didn’t show up.
Everybody knows me, but a lot of people didn’t know I was running for U.S. Senate. I never got any help from the local papers. I was an afterthought. They ignored me. Even my opponent would not say bad things. They all said, “What a great sheriff, blah, blah, blah.” But I didn’t get any negative stuff, even from the papers because they knew if they start hitting me negatively, I would have won this.
They made it look like I was just there. I was hoping they’d hit me on the negative stuff.
You also lost the county you used to be sheriff in for many years, only receiving 17 percent of the vote. Do you think that was a rejection of your time serving there?
This is a primary, and there was a 30 percent turnout, which isn’t much, so I don’t consider this as an example that I lost Maricopa County because, you know, a primary is a primary. Because I know I’m very popular here.
But you did lose Maricopa County. Were you surprised you lost by so much?
Am I surprised? It doesn’t matter. I think [Rep. Martha] McSally won every county. Well, I won a county. So if she won every county with her millions and millions of dollars, I would presume she would win Maricopa County, too. What difference does it make whether I was sheriff here?
You brought up President Trump. You were one of the first major supporters of his campaign, and he, of course, pardoned you last year. Were you disappointed he didn’t endorse you?
No. He didn’t support anybody. I have a relationship with the president, everybody knows my relationship with him. So I’m not going to talk about endorsements and all that.
But his endorsements have proved to be quite impactful for the candidates he’s backed this year. Do you think if Trump endorsed you that you would have come out on top?
I’m not the one that goes out and asks for endorsements. So this is nothing new, I don’t ask for endorsements.
What was your reaction to how the White House and the president handled John McCain’s death? Not lowering the flag at first, refusing to call him a hero or praise him directly?
No matter what [Trump] does, certain news channels and certain critics of his will criticize him. When the president goes to the toilet, they report it. It doesn’t concern me. But he’s got a lot of courage to make those decisions, and I respect him very much for how he’s operating.
As someone who received a pardon from the president, what are your thoughts on him possibly pardoning his former campaign chief, Paul Manafort?
Whatever he does, on pardons or anything else, I back him up, OK?
So you would support the president pardoning Manafort?
He does things, and he has a good reason. So if he did that, I’m sure he has a good reason. I back him up 100 percent.
With McSally taking the nomination and going up against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, do you think the Senate seat will stay red after the election?
Well, I’m not going to talk about her. If the president wants her to win, which I’m sure he does, so naturally, I’m going to go and do what the president wants. He’s my hero, and I’m sure not going to push a Democrat.
Have you or will you endorse her moving forward?
Nobody has called me yet from her campaign, I left a message congratulating her. I haven’t received any calls, so we will see what happens.
You just turned 86, you’ve had a long career in public service, the president pardoned you last year — is this the last we will see of Sheriff Joe in politics?
I’m gonna stay close to the president. I’m gonna keep supporting him. Losing this race doesn’t interfere with all that. So I lost this primary? OK. But maybe it’s better that I can speak out more freely as a private citizen and not worry about getting re-elected. So I have an advantage.
Do you think you’ll run again for office?
Maybe. I might go up to 100. I want to be the oldest senator. They actually said that I would be the oldest — why when they say “Joe Arpaio,” they always put my age. They write, “Joe Arpaio,” — How old am I? 86.
Editor’s Note: The preceding interview has been edited both for clarity and ease of reading.