By JACQUES BILLEAUD
PHOENIX (AP) - Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America who could face criminal charges for ignoring a judge's order to stop targeting Latinos in anti-immigration roundups, may now have a new foe as he seeks re-election - George Soros, the billionaire liberal hedge fund tycoon.
The Republican sheriff already was battered politically and support for him had been slipping when a group linked to Soros mounted an anti-Arpaio attack in an attempt to weaken his bid for a seventh straight term.
The group started sending fliers to Phoenix-area voters two weeks ago, and a mailing last week accuses Arpaio of separating a mother from her child because of an unpaid traffic ticket, botching hundreds of sex crimes investigations and scaring immigrants so much that that they don't report crime.
Arpaio denies the claims and is easily capable of striking back with a formidable $2.9 million still available for campaign spending ahead of the Nov. 8 vote, dwarfing the total $326,000 raised by his challenger, Democrat Paul Penzone, a former Phoenix police sergeant who lost to Arpaio by 6 percentage points in 2012.
But the entry of a Soros-linked group is a gift for Penzone, who acknowledges he'll never come close to matching Arpaio's campaign spending.
Over the last year, Soros contributed $3.9 million to Democrats in law enforcement political races in Chicago, St. Louis, Orlando, Houston, Albuquerque, Lowndes County in Mississippi and Caddo Parish in Louisiana, according to campaign finance records.
Of the seven district attorney candidates Soros-linked groups have backed, two have already been elected and four won primaries. Only one lost.
In New Mexico, Soros gave $107,000 to Raul Torrez, the winner of the Democrat primary in June for the county that encompasses Albuquerque - prompting Republican Simon Kubiak to drop out.
Kubiak said he guaranteed Torrez victory because he could not raise the money he would have needed to counterattack and because he feared a barrage of negative ads.
"I would have accepted it, too," Kubiak said of Soros' donation to Torrez.
Officials with the billionaire's Soros Fund Management referred comment on Soros' political donations to Michael Vachon, a top Soros adviser who serves as his personal spokesman. Vachon did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
The new anti-Arpaio group, Maricopa Strong, registered in Arizona on Aug. 29, the day before Arpaio won his Republican primary against three opponents. It is not required to file a report detailing who made donations and spending until Sept. 29.
But county records state Maricopa Strong's chairwoman is Whitney Tymas, a former public defense attorney in New York and Virginia prosecutor who serves as treasurer for the Soros-funded Safety & Justice national political committee and groups with similar names in Illinois, Florida, Texas and New Mexico.
Tymas did not respond to repeated phone and email messages seeking comment, and Maricopa Strong spokeswoman Tania Torres did not respond when asked by telephone and email if Soros had provided the group with funding.
The tenor of the ads shown for various local races and past positions by Soros-backed groups indicate he's focused on reducing perceived racial disparities within the criminal justice system. His super political action committee gave more than $14 million from 2015-16, including big sums to organizations trying to elect Hillary Clinton.
The anti-Arpaio flier accuses him of being "obsessed with immigrants at the expense of his job" and of making "immigrant communities scared to report crime for fear they will be harassed by the Sheriff's Office."
The 84-year-old Arpaio has denied he is anti-immigrant and that his unfinished business includes an overhaul of his office after his officers were found by a federal judge to have racially profiled Latinos in traffic patrols that made him a national figure in the immigration debate.
Arpaio was found in civil contempt for failing to stop the patrols after the judge ordered them halted in December 2011. Federal prosecutors are deciding whether to file a criminal contempt-of-court case against him punishable by up to six months of jail time if classified as a misdemeanor and an unspecified sentencing range if deemed a felony.
The list of local law and order campaigns Soros has bankrolled have targeted other incumbents criticized for decisions involving race. They include a $408,000 donation to a first-time candidate for prosecutor in Chicago who won the Democratic primary in March against an incumbent criticized for charging a white police officer a full year after the officer shot a black teenager dead.
In Florida, the incumbent prosecutor for the Orlando area known for prosecuting the Casey Anthony case attributed Soros' money to tipping voters against him during the last month of his campaign before the Aug. 30 primary.
Jeff Ashton said opponent Aramis Alaya gained momentum after a Soros-funded group started running a TV spot on alleged legal system racial disparities.
"She was done," Ashton said. "And then the huge amount of money started pouring in."
Funding by the new anti-Arpaio group could also impact the presidential race because Arpaio is a strident Donald Trump supporter. Democrats hope to rally Arizona's Latinos - a voting bloc including many who have long reviled the sheriff - to show up to vote for Clinton in November.
Chad Willems, the sheriff's campaign manager, said he suspected a well-funded anti-Arpaio group from outside Arizona would get involved in the campaign but doubted it would prevent Arpaio from winning.
"He is a known commodity here. The voters do still like him," Willems said.
Penzone said in an interview that he has had no contact with Maricopa Strong or Soros and doubted money funneled into the race would level the playing field because Arpaio has so much. He has spent $8.9 million on his campaign so far.
The development does show that some people outside Arizona want Arpaio out, Penzone said.
"With his name recognition and tenure in office and all that money, he is still falling short of expectations," Penzone said.