Democrats acknowledge the chances of toppling Sheriff Joe Arpaio are slim this year.
But Arpaio is at the core of a strategy Democrats have devised to target other Maricopa County offices to neutralize the popular lawman, whose tactics on issues like combating illegal immigration have polarized the public.
Rather than trying to unseat Arpaio directly, Democrats are trying to keep him in check by claiming victory in other county races, which they have targeted with stronger-than-usual candidates who are raising higher-than-usual amounts of money. And with Democrats vastly outnumbered by Republicans in the county, the party is selectively choosing which GOP candidates to go after.
Democrats see Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and county Supervisor Fulton Brock, R-District 2, as the two most vulnerable Republicans in the county this year, and have backed a pair of well-financed challengers to try to take them down come November.
Democrats Tim Nelson, who is running against Thomas, and Ed Hermes, who is taking on Brock, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars between them since the beginning of the year, sums nearly unheard-of for Democrats in county races.
Combined, Democrats view Nelson and Hermes as the key pieces in their overall political strategy.
If they can beat Thomas and Brock, Democratic party officials think it will have the effect of corralling Arpaio.
For that strategy to work, however, Democrats will have to overcome long odds in a county heavily skewed toward the GOP. Countywide, Republicans hold a 157,000-person edge in voter registration over Democrats. And of the five supervisor districts in the county, Democrats hold a registration advantage in only one, while the others are heavily skewed toward Republicans.
Faced with those numbers, the Democratic party has written off most countywide races, opting not to run candidates for county recorder, assessor, school superintendent and treasurer.
Mark Manoil, executive director for the Maricopa County Democratic Party, said it wasn't feasible to run candidates in those little-known races.
"Unless somebody is doing a notoriously bad job, most voters are likely to vote their registration," Manoil said. "And that makes it harder for challengers to raise money."
So the party, Manoil said, decided to compete in races with the highest impact.
This year Democrats are running in all five of the county's supervisor districts, something that hasn't happened since the board was expanded from three seats to five more than 50 years ago.
UPHILL BATTLE FOR SABAN
Dan Saban is running directly against Arpaio as a Democrat. However, he has struggled to raise the kind of money that is being raked in by Hermes and Nelson.
Arpaio maintains high approval ratings in the post he has held for the past 16 years. He has raised about $500,000, far outpacing the $88,000 raised by Saban, according to the most recent financial disclosure reports that were released in August.
"Some look at this as an incredible uphill battle," said Manoil, who believes Saban can pull off the political upset but understands the political realities of trying to defeat Arpaio. But, Manoil added, wins in other races would lesson the effects in the case of a Saban loss.
Repeated phone calls to the chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Party, Thomas Husband, were not returned.
Brock is viewed as the most vulnerable Republican on the Board of Supervisors, according to Democratic Party officials. His district covers Tempe and parts of Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale and Chandler. Democrats have targeted that race because they believe the changing politics in large swaths of the district have primed the incumbent, Brock, for a loss.
Two years ago, Democrat Harry Mitchell, a former Tempe mayor, defeated his incumbent rival in a hard-fought congressional race. Legislative District 17, which includes most of Tempe, is also represented by three Democrats in the Legislature, the only enclave in the East Valley represented at the state Capitol by a Democrat.
The boundaries of Brock's district do not align exactly with either Mitchell's congressional district, or with District 17. But what the districts do have in common are big chunks of voters from south Scottsdale to south Tempe.
Party officials want to build on that success on the county level with the 24-year-old Hermes. Since the beginning of the year, Hermes has raised more than $100,000. By contrast, Brock, who has held the seat since 1997, has raised about $122,000 for his campaign. But about half the money - $60,000 - was carried over from previous campaigns.
"It took me a little more than six months to raise my money," Hermes said on Friday. "It took my opponent 12 years." Still, Brock said he's just started ramping up his fundraising efforts and is comfortable that he will retain his seat. He and other political observers point out there are about 43,000 more registered GOP voters in the district than Democrats.
Brock said Friday that he hasn't paid attention to his opponent's fundraising. But moments after making that statement, he noted someone "should really look at and check out how much money my opponent is getting from out-of-town."
In the 12 years Brock has served on the board, he has never run against a Democratic opponent in the general election.
Among the main issues raised by Hermes in the campaign is that Brock has not done enough to hold Arpaio in check.
Hermes said he'll call for an extensive audit of Arpaio's operations. With the current makeup of four Republicans and one Democrat on the board, that has not happened, Hermes said.
2ND DEMOCRAT A RARITY
If Hermes wins, he would join Mary Rose Wilcox as the other Democrat on the board. The last time two Democrats served on the board at the same time was 1992, said a spokesman for the county.
In contrast to Hermes' success, Joel Sinclaire, who is challenging incumbent Don Stapley in the East Valley's District 2, has raised a little more than $8,300, according campaign finance reports. Stapley has about $80,000.
Supervisor Andy Kunasek's opponent in District 3 didn't pull in enough money to file a campaign finance report, county records show.
The race that could prove to be the most troublesome for Arpaio is Nelson's attempt to unseat Thomas, who is finishing his first term as county attorney.
Since jumping into the race, Nelson has shown he can raise big money - a critical element for anyone trying to unseat an incumbent. So far he's brought more than $278,000, narrowly outpacing Thomas, who took in about $262,000, according to county records.
Nelson's candidacy also stands to benefit from his relationship with Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat. Nelson was Napolitano's chief legal counsel before he announced he was running for county attorney.
During the campaign, Nelson has promised to stand up to some of Arpaio's tactics to combat illegal immigration.
Thomas, like the Board of Supervisors, has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to dealing with Arpaio. Board members contend they have no authority to interfere with Arpaio's office since he is elected by the voters.
However, Richard Romley, who was county attorney for 16 years before Thomas, said the board has the power and the obligation to review the sheriff's budget, and can refuse to fund any program it considers inappropriate.
As for Thomas, Romley said the county attorney has the power to block improper law enforcement efforts by the sheriff. Romley said he rebuffed Arpaio's attempts years ago to surround the Valley with checkpoints to randomly search vehicles for drugs.
"The county attorney has a significant ability on the practices of the sheriff's office," Romley said.