- Policy Resources
- News & Analysis
- Your State
AZ Republic: Russell Pearce Recall May Indicate New Political Climate
PSN on November 12, 2011 - 12:00am
By Alia Beard Rau, Arizona Republic, November 12, 2011
Last week, voters nationwide said no to the right-wing efforts of some state political leaders.
Those in west Mesa's Legislative District 18 ousted one of Arizona's most powerful conservatives, partly because of his focus on illegal-immigration enforcement. Phoenix and Tucson elected Democratic mayors.
In other states, voters overturned legislation that would have restricted unions and also rejected a ballot measure to ban all abortions.
The outcomes of these elections have politicians and analysts wondering whether the nation is moving left.
Throughout American history, the political pendulum has swung between conservative and liberal as politicians push it one way until voters respond by pushing it back the other direction. For the past few years, the pendulum has swung further to the right as the hundreds of Republicans who gained additional legislative seats in 2010 used their influence to pass increasingly conservative legislation.
Some say Tuesday's election results are a sign that Americans are beginning to push back toward the left, and some predict more to come in 2012.
But the political implications, particularly in Arizona, aren't that clear-cut. Too many other factors played a role in Tuesday's elections.
Republicans argue that the results -- particularly Arizona's recall of Senate President Russell Pearce -- were too local to have any broader implications. GOP leaders predict it will be business as usual for conservatives in Arizona because, they say, Arizonans still support conservative measures, including tough immigration enforcement.
Political analysts also warn against reading too much into Tuesday's election results.
"The conditions surrounding the election on Tuesday were uniquely local," said Zach Smith, Northern Arizona University regents professor of politics and international affairs. "To generalize about anything national that might go on next year, you'd have to make too many inferences."
Arizona's election system typically benefits conservative candidates.
In a Republican district -- as most of Arizona's congressional and legislative districts are -- a far right-wing candidate will usually beat a more moderate opponent in a Republican primary.
Bruce Merrill, a veteran political scientist and professor emeritus at Arizona State University, said that while there are a lot of "pretty moderate" voters in Arizona, they often don't vote.
And in the general election, Republican voters typically support the Republican candidate over the Democratic opponent, even if the Republican candidate has more conservative views than their own.
In 2010, Arizona voters gave Republicans a supermajority in both the state House and the Senate. Early in the session this year, Pearce declared the Senate to be the "tea party" Senate.
"This Legislature gets elected railing against immigration and talking about Obama's birth certificate," Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny said. "You have to play to an electorate that's not representative of where the state is."
This recall was the first in Arizona history of a sitting state legislator.
In a recall, there is no primary and anybody of any political party can vote. Because of that, the system benefits the more moderate candidate.
Voters had a choice between two conservative candidates. More-liberal voters chose the more moderate of the two. Although Pearce and his opponent, Jerry Lewis, agree on most conservative issues, Lewis supports more- comprehensive immigration reforms.
Pearce has become nationally known as an immigration hard-liner, pushing for enforcement measures against illegal immigrants in hopes of driving them from the state. He is the author of Senate Bill 1070, which the Arizona Legislature passed last year and several other states copied this year. That law, before the courts halted much of it from going into effect, would have required law enforcement to check a person's legal status when there was reasonable suspicion that the person was an undocumented immigrant.
"If this were a normal election, it might have some validity. But this was far from a normal election," Arizona Republican Party Chairman Tom Morrissey said. "This was a race between two Republicans with Democrats voting in it and people being recruited to come in and register and vote."
But not everyone sees it that way.
Rudy Lopez, national field director of politics for the Washington, D.C.-based minority advocacy group Campaign for Community Change, said the campaign against Pearce was a "trial run and a model for a national campaign that's going to take place in 2012 -- a campaign to reward champions of immigration reform and hold accountable those who are hostile to our communities."
"The message of this election is clear," Lopez said. "Latinos and immigrants will not be scapegoated, and we will not tolerate those politicians who attempt to gain or take power by demonizing us."
In the short term
Cherny said he sees the vote as a sign.
"If you look over the course of Arizona history and American history, whenever you have people in power who are out of step with the electorate, the electorate has a way of changing direction," he said.
He said he hopes the recall serves as a wake-up call for state lawmakers. But he admits it's not likely.
"I'm an eternal optimist, but my fear is that they will continue to be tone-deaf," he said. "They're still looking at pushing things like a flat tax, which would raise taxes on everyone making under $100,000. Issues like that are great right-wing talking points but don't actually reflect the wishes of most Arizonans."
Arizona's legislative session begins in January. GOP lawmakers last week named Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, the new Senate president.
Many consider Pierce slightly more moderate than his predecessor. Pierce voted for SB 1070 in 2010 but helped vote down five other tough illegal- immigration measures this year.
But after his appointment, Pierce promised to carry on as Pearce had.
"We're going to continue the good things that Russell started," Pierce said, without mentioning specifics.
In addition to his immigration efforts, Pearce also pushed successfully to cut the budget, pass a jobs bill that lowers business taxes and put limits on abortions. He backed unsuccessful efforts to allow guns on college campuses and in public buildings.
Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, said even without Pearce, she expects immigration bills to make their way through the process next session.
That's partly because Pierce has agreed to continue his predecessor's policy of allowing any bill to come to the Senate floor for debate if it has approval from a majority of the 21-member caucus.
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, said he hopes that won't be the case. But he fears it will.
"Voters on Tuesday cast their vote in outright rejection of the extreme tea-party ideology that has made its way into public policy the past couple of years," Schapira said.
Morrissey predicts it will be "business as usual" for the Legislature next session.
"I don't see (Pearce's) absence changing much," he said. "These legislators are facing their own re-elections, and the same dynamics still prevail, the same problems exist. I don't see the solutions to them being very different."
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer -- like Pearce -- has become synonymous with opposing illegal immigration. Her decision to sign SB 1070 into law was key to her winning re-election. Since then, she has become a national figure on border security.
Her office was adamant that Pearce's defeat was not a referendum against hard-line immigration stances.
"Every poll we've seen and every measure of public support (indicates) that Arizonans remain concerned about illegal immigration and border security and that SB 1070 remains widely popular in this state," Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said.
Because Tuesday's recall election allowed all parties to vote, it's not a clear indicator of how Arizonans may vote in the more traditional 2012 elections. And several other factors may influence voters between now and then.
Former Republican Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo supported Pearce during the election. He said the outcome may have a "chilling effect" on some candidates who favor a hard line on immigration, but he says it's too early to know whether there will be any real fallout from voters.
"If I were advising any of those people who were wondering about how this might impact their own races, I'd say wait until November of next year and see what happens in a general election and see if Russell is indeed re-elected to the state Senate," Tancredo said. "My guess is that he will be. This is somewhat of a political aberration as a result of the peculiar way in which these recall elections are conducted in Arizona."
Pearce has said he hasn't yet decided if he'll run for the Legislature again.
Morrissey said the outcome of the recall election has reinvigorated Arizona conservatives. He said that will make them a strong voting bloc come 2012.
"They are angry about what has happened, and they are ready to get back in the game," he said.
Charles Monaco, communications director for the New York-based advocacy group Progressive States Network, said Hispanic voters also have been galvanized.
"I think we will see in 2012 the electoral impact of the Hispanic and Latino vote across the country," Monaco said.
He also predicted a general backlash against conservative Republicans.
"The disconnect between the public and the government is pretty clear. We see that in the Occupy Wall Street protests. The public's reacting against that," he said. "They want to see action."
Cherny said a lot will depend on the outcome of the ongoing redistricting process and how many competitive legislative districts the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission creates in the final version of new boundaries.
"The more competitive districts there are, the more of a chance there is for people's voice to be heard," he said.
The commission is in chaos right now. Brewer, with the support of the state Senate, removed the chairwoman, leaving the panel potentially deadlocked as it moves forward without an independent, fifth member.
Brewer and other Republicans say the commission has not drawn the congressional and legislative boundaries in a fair manner. The maps need to be in place for the 2012 election.
A multipartisan group also is working on what it believes will be a more long-term solution to lopsided primaries. It would abolish party primaries in Arizona, instead allowing all voters to vote on all the candidates. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, would then go on to the general election.
The goal is to encourage more independent voters to participate and attract more moderate candidates who appeal to a broader range of voters.
Right now independents don't typically vote in large numbers, despite making up about 33 percent of the state's voting population. Democrats make up 31 percent, and Republicans 35.5 percent.
The Arizona Open Government Coalition must gather at least 259,213 valid signatures from Arizona voters by July 5 to get the measure on the 2012 ballot.
Schapira said something needs to be done to fix the state's primary process.
"The reason Russell Pearce and legislators like him get elected is because our primary process is broken," he said.
Republic reporters Gary Nelson, Ginger Rough and Mary K. Reinhart contributed to this article.