In an unprecedented recall election, Arizona's State Senator and Senate President Russell Pearce, conceded defeat Tuesday. The defeat was a stunning rebuke to the author of Arizona's controversial immigration law and could serve as a warning signal to politicians who have advocated hard-line policies on immigration.
The recall vote was widely perceived as a referendum on immigration policies by both sides of the political divide. Pearce himself painted the recall advocates as liberal outsiders who were targeting him because of immigration.
Although the GOP retaines control of the Legislature, Pearce's defeat is being interpreted by Republicans as message that divisive stands on immigration and other issues are not welcome by voters.
Political analyst Chris Herstam, a Republican lobbyist and former legislator, said Pearce was repudiated by voters who believe the economy, jobs and education should be the first priority -- not immigration.
"The Legislature remains extremely conservative but with regards to making illegal immigration their top priority, this should be a warning shot across the bow," Herstam said.
With thousands of ballots counted and results in from all 16 precincts, charter school executive Jerry Lewis led with 53 percent of the vote, compared with about 45 percent for Pearce, a margin of about 1,800 votes. An unknown number of early ballots turned in Tuesday remained to be counted, but Pearce was resigned to defeat.
"It doesn't look like the numbers are going in my direction with this, and I'm OK with this," Pearce said Tuesday night, surrounded by Republican legislative allies, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and other supporters.
Pearce voiced determination, but no regrets. "I'm grateful for the battles that we've won," he said, adding later, "If being recalled is being the price for keeping these promises, then so be it."
Pearce didn't explicitly say that he was conceding, but campaign spokesman Ed Phillips later said that was the lawmaker's intent. "It was a concession," Phillips said.
I'm grateful for the battles that we've won...If being recalled is being the price for keeping these promises, then so be it.
- Russell Pearce
Pearce was the author of the 2010 immigration law that put Arizona in the national spotlight and was replicated by several states around the country. The recall vote was seen by some as a referendum on the Legislature's hard-line immigration laws that Pearce has championed over the years.
A Pearce loss means that Lewis replaces him in the district's Senate seat and that majority Republicans would have to pick a new president to lead the legislative chamber.
Pearce accumulated a large amount of power as he rose through the ranks of the legislature to become leader of the Senate. Republicans hold more than a two-thirds advantage in the body, giving the party enough votes to easily advance its conservative agenda in GOP-dominated Arizona.
As a result, Pearce and his colleagues have taken a forceful role on conservative causes including business tax cuts, school private school vouchers, abortion limits, gun rights, union restrictions and immigration.
The recall election, forced by a petition drive, was the first for an Arizona legislator.
Recall supporters and Lewis' campaign did not emphasize the immigration issue, but it was one of the factors in the race.
"Certainly the immigration issue is important to many people including myself," Lewis said. "We need to bring a civil tone to that discussion, a professional approach to solving it, an approach that is reasonable and won't be ... in the courts for years to come."
The law's enactment gave Pearce national notice as a leading proponent of Arizona's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. He previously won enactment of a 2007 state law requiring employers to use a federal database to check new employees' work eligibility.
However, the 2010 law led to protests and boycotts of the state, and business groups urged legislators to take a timeout on the issue and to instead push for federal action.
That opposition led the Arizona Senate last spring to dramatically reject a handful of new Pearce-backed bills on the subject.
Pearce had support from Brewer and dozens of other elected Republican officeholders, but he was dogged by disclosures that he accepted numerous free trips from the Fiesta Bowl to out-of-state college football trips. He said he took the trips at the bowl's request to help support its economic role in the state.
While Lewis' campaign drew support and contributions from hundreds of Mesa residents, Pearce outspent his 54-year-old challenger by more than a 3-1 ratio.
A third name also was on the recall ballots, but Olivia Cortes withdrew from the race, so ballots cast for her were tabulated but won't count. She had faced a legal challenge to her candidacy that produced court testimony indicating tea party activists orchestrated her candidacy to dilute the anti-Pearce vote.
Cortes was getting a little more than 1 percent of the vote.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.