SCOTTSDALE (AP) – Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was asking dozens of tea party activists for their backing in Arizona's Republican Senate primary when one audience member said it was a shame disgruntled conservatives couldn't send "both of you" to Washington.
The man wasn't just talking about Arpaio, but the other Arizona conservative icon who was there that night promoting her rival Senate campaign, former state Sen. Kelli Ward. The room burst into applause at the remark, which sums up the dilemma facing Arizona's boisterous conservatives – their hearts are split between two candidates in the primary. That divide could pave the way for the more moderate candidate, Rep. Martha McSally.
Up for grabs is the seat held by Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring after being pummeled by his initial primary challenger, Ward. She has accused Flake of being too soft on immigration and not supportive enough of President Donald Trump.
Arpaio, pardoned by Trump last year after being convicted of contempt of court in a racial profiling case, roiled the race in January by jumping in. He has raised only $500,000, the least among the three major Republicans.
"Whoever convinced Joe to run didn't do the movement any favors," said Constantine Querard, an Arizona conservative strategist who has long been friendly toward Arpaio but backs Ward, "because the movement has a tremendous affection for Joe, but he splits the movement."
Chuck Coughlin, a more centrist Arizona Republican strategist, is more blunt about Arpaio: "He's not in it to win it, he's just in it to keep Kelli Ward from winning."
The frustration over the two candidates splitting the conservative vote spilled into the open this week, when Arpaio's campaign alleged that Ward's camp offered the former sheriff a job with a pro-Trump superPAC if he dropped out of the race. The Ward campaign denies it made the offer.
Arpaio, 85, said the offer was offensive. "I don't like to be intimidated by anyone," the former six-term sheriff said in an interview. "It's no secret that a lot of people want me out of the race. My response is I'm not leaving."
Arpaio gained notoriety for his outdoor "tent city" jail in which inmates wore pink underwear, his tendency to launch investigations of political critics and his crackdown on illegal immigration, which a judge ruled in 2013 amounted to racial profiling by his department as it routinely stopped Hispanics to check on their immigration status. Arpaio's agency continued the practice against the judge's orders. Arpaio then lost the 2016 election and was convicted of contempt of court.
If Arpaio's gravelly-voiced swagger represents the populist, hardline immigration movement that helped power Arizona conservatism, Ward, 49, represents the conservative wing. A family physician from western Arizona, Ward served a single term in the state Senate and became a hero to conservative activists for her 2016 primary challenge of Sen. John McCain. Though Ward lost handily, it crystalized the frustration conservatives have felt toward the state's senators, McCain and Flake, both of whom take a far more dovish stance on immigration than GOP activists.
Ward has generally avoided attacking Arpaio. In an interview before the alleged offer, Ward said that she is a longtime supporter but "we have a better option" for Senate. Ward saves most of her fire for McSally, 52, a former Air Force pilot who represents a Tucson swing district won by Hillary Clinton and who criticized Trump during the presidential election. McSally has since tacked right, boasting of her access to Trump and pulling her support from legislation that would grant citizenship to people brought into the country illegally as children.
"The majority of Arizona Republican primary voters and independents don't want Jeff Flake 2.0," Ward said.
The ire toward McSally is palpable at conservative gatherings like the meeting of the Sun Lakes Republican Club earlier this month. As Ward addressed the gathering, organizers slapped a picture of McSally onto an empty chair to symbolize her absence.
Dave Marcus, a 64-year-old retired salesman who moved to the "active senior community" four years ago and describes himself as a "California escapee," said he didn't like what he'd heard about McSally. "Dr. Ward seems to be saying the right things more than Martha McSally," Marcus said.
And Arpaio? "He's got a past I don't object to, but he's a little bit older. I'm not sure he's got the energy,"Marcus said.
At the Scottsdale Tea Party meeting, some had similar worries. Arpaio, who has pledged to serve only one term, would be the oldest person ever elected to a freshman term in the Senate. U.S. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, is 84 and running for re-election.
"I love him, he's a great guy, I just don't think he's up to the task," Joe Romack, an engineer, said of Arpaio.
Arpaio and Ward both spoke from under a banner that read Taxed Enough Already – the tea party motto. They touted their ties to the Trump administration. Arpaio recounted public praise from Vice President Mike Pence during a recent Phoenix visit. Ward dropped the name of Sebastian Gorka, who was fired from the White House but is still a prominent Trump supporter and has endorsed her campaign.
Paula Gallagher listened with interest, but she'd already made up her mind.
"We know Sheriff Joe," Gallagher said. "Look at his history. His resume speaks volumes about how he's dedicated his life and his service to not only this state for many years but the country in general."