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Latinos were a key factor in the defeat of Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, author of the state’s controversial immigration law, according to a poll taken of voters.
Latinos voters supported Pearce’s challenger, fellow Republican Jerry Lewis, a political newcomer, by a three-to-one margin, according to Project New West, which conducted the poll.
They account for 13 percent of the recall electorate. Lewis won by 53.4 percent to 45.3 percent, a difference of around 1,800 votes.
Lewis told Fox News Latino that he made an extra effort to reach out to Latinos to urge them to vote. He said he often used his rudimentary Spanish to woo them.
“I think we can make a pretty good assumption that the Hispanic vote really made a huge difference in this election,” Lewis, a charter school executive, said in an interview with Fox News Latino. “I did a lot of door-knocking in Hispanic neighborhoods. I went on Hispanic shows.”
Lewis’s upset victory was seen in great part as a vote against Pearce’s hawkish views on how to deal with undocumented immigrants, and what many critics denounced as his divisive rhetoric.
Poll respondents who voted against Pearce said they chose to recall the legislator, who was the state Senate President, because they felt that their representatives needed to focus less on immigration and more on jobs and the economy.
“Russell Pearce’s decision to focus on extremist immigration policies played a role in his defeat,” said Project New West’s president, Jill Hanauer, in published reports, “and could do so for more Arizona Republicans if they continue to ignore the priorities of voters.”
The recall election was a first for an Arizona legislator. Latino community leader Randy Parraz led the recall drive.
I think we can make a pretty good assumption that the Hispanic vote really made a huge difference in this election.
District 18, where the recall election took place, has some 70,000 registered voters. Though exact numbers of people who turned out to the polls were unavailable, those involved in the recall election said that some 4,000 Hispanics requested absentee ballots.
Hispanics make up more than 30 percent of the district's population, which tends to lean Republican and conservative.
Republicans dismissed Tuesday's results as coming from an "abnormal election" funded by out-of-state interests upset by Arizona's 2010 enactment of the groundbreaking immigration enforcement law, known as SB1070.
The law formed the basis for immigration measures in many other states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. SB 1070, and similar ones in other states, are being challenged by the Obama administration, which says they are unconstitutional and step into what is purely a federal matter.
In an essay on the news website Politico on Tuesday, Pearce balked at the notion that his defeat was a rejection of SB1070. He called Lewis victory a sort of fluke.
"I’d be lying if I said I was not extremely disappointed by being voted out in a recall election. I’m sad to go under these circumstances," Pearce wrote.
"But the truth is – as some political observers acknowledge – I probably wouldn’t have lost the race in a normal election," he continued. "In my previous race, I won with two-thirds of the vote...My Republican opponent was Jerry Lewis, who stated he was opposed to SB1070, supports the DREAM Act and believes illegal aliens do the jobs that Americans won’t."
A columnist for The East Valley Tribune said that Lewis voters he interviewed expressed a disappointment with Pearce's aggressive style.
"His single-issue focus and stridency was seen very badly around the country," one of the voters, businessman Mike Elliott, was quoted as saying in the column."We're not Alabama in the 60s, but that's the image we were projecting."
The poll found that white voters were split evenly between Pearce and Lewis. Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Lewis, who also got most of the Independents support, according to the poll.
Pearce won the support of Mormon voters by a 16-point margin. Both Pearce and Lewis are Mormons.
Lewis said that while illegal immigration must be addressed, the solution does not lie in enforcement-only laws.
“It’s common sense,” he said. “You have to look at immigration and [its] impact on the economy, education, welfare services. You have got to look at the national security side of it, and ask, ‘How do we do it in a way that bespeaks our humanity?’
“We need to have a balanced approach” to addressing illegal immigration, he added. “To solve the problem we need to update the [federal immigration] laws to be considerate of the families, and provide a means for those already here to square themselves with the law.”
Lewis said Arizona must get back to focusing on the economy and education issues.
“We’ve got 9.1 percent unemployment and one in 10 people are out of work,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”
He said the state must work to undo the damage that SB1070 has done to Arizona’s reputation.
“We have to invite our business and tourism back, and we have to get our agricultural business back” on track as well, he said.
Lewis said it is wrong to scapegoat Hispanics in debates about immigration.
“Hispanics are honest, hard-working people,” he said. “They’re faith-based. They don't want to be on the dole like a lot of people think they do.
“They’re a proud people, they vote for someone who they feel is going to represent their principles,” he added.
His message to them during his campaign was: “We have an immigration problem and we need to focus on solutions, not use hateful rhetoric.”
Pearce, meanwhile, wrote in Politico that though he is no longer in the State Legislature, he will not disappear from the debate on immigration.
"Before I introduced SB 1070, Arizona political luminaries like Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake were leading sponsors of amnesty for illegal immigrants," Pearce wrote. "But since we passed it, most of our GOP [members of Congress] and senators at least give lip service to supporting patriotic immigration enforcement.
"I have not decided whether or not I will run again for the State Senate, or another office," Pearce said, and added, "I promise you, though, that I will not retreat from this fight."
Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @Liz_Llorente