Arizona recall: Why Russell Pearce lost

at 12:10 PM ET, 11/09/2011

Most coverage of Tuesday’s night’s recall of state Senate President Russell Pearce (R) in Mesa, Arizona has focused on the fact that Russell authored the state’s controversial immigration legislation.

Pearce was defeated by Republican Jerry Lewis, a charter school executive, in a Republican primary that many may see as a referendum on a harsh immigration law similar to the one signed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and challenged by the Obama administration in the courts.

Immigration was a factor in his defeat — in large part because the Mormon Church decided that it should be. But an ethics scandal and under-handed campaign tactics also played a role.


Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) was ousted by a fellow Republican in a recall election on Tuesday Nov. 8, 2011. (Ross D. Franklin - AP Photo)

Lewis, the charter school executive who defeated him, is a conservative Republican not a moderate. He differs from Pearce on immigration less in policy than in tone and focus, something Democrats take as a victory.

"Arizona chose mainstream over extremism last night, dealing a blow to the Russell Pearce-style of Republican politics,” said Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Andy Barr. “We applaud the voters of Legislative District 18 for ending Pearce's disastrous reign over the Senate.”

The party did not play much in this race, although some Democrats did help get the recall on the ballot. This recall was part of an internal Republican — and in particular — Mormon debate over how to approach immigration.

Both Pearce and Lewis, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Lewis is a former bishop and stake president. Mesa, founded by the church, is one of the most Mormon cities in the country.

Lewis recently called the controversial immigration law a “good start,” although he added that he would tackle the issue differently.

“We are seen as a very unfriendly business state” because of Pearce’s approach, Lewis said during the campaign. “We are seen as something akin to maybe 1964 Alabama.”

The Mormon church has been trying to reach out to Hispanic voters, and Pearce’s virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, along with his divisive law, was seen as hurting that effort. Pearce has condemned the church for its anti-SB1070 stance and angered leaders by falsely claiming that he had their support.

    "The Mormon church clearly percolated below the surface to make sure that its members knew that Russell Pearce was making their missionary efforts in Central and South America more difficult,” said Nathan Sproul, Republican strategist

Recall supporters said the Utah Compact — a Mormon model for more comprehensive immigration reform signed about a year ago — helped spark their campaign.

“I've heard [Mormon conservatives] say, 'We need to love people,' and 'We shouldn't be doing this to people,” one source told Religion Dispatches.

While Pearce had the support of prominent Republicans across the state, Lewis got the backing of local Mormon leaders.

There were also other issues dogging Pearce.

Pearce was caught up in a scandal earlier this year surrounding the Fiesta Bowl. He accepted and did not report nearly $40,000 in all-expense-paid junkets and college football tickets from Fiesta Bowl officials while helping steer state subsidies towards the game. Worse, he appears to have lied about receiving the illegal free tickets. The ethics scandal hurt his credibility with tea-party activists in the state.

Pearce also got a lot of blowback after allegations that his supporters put a third candidate, retiree Olivia Cortes, on the ballot to pull votes away from Lewis. Signs for Cortes that said “Si, Se Puede” (or “Yes, it can be done ) in particular inspired ire.

“That was a startling miscalculation,” said state Sen. Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert), a Pearce supporter.

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