PHOENIX – Senate President Russell Pearce conceded defeat Tuesday in an unprecedented recall election, a stunning turnabout for the author of Arizona's tough immigration law and one of the most powerful politicians in the state.
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.
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 hardline immigration laws that Pearce has championed over the years.
But Pearce also 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.
Republicans have said that a Pearce defeat would send a message to GOP lawmakers that they need to take a more moderate approach to avoid suffering a similar fate. 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 and painted the recall advocates as liberal outsiders who were targeting him because of immigration.
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.