On top of the world a year ago when his landmark immigration bill became law, Senate President Russell Pearce saw his political career turn to dust tonight when he lost his legislative seat to a political neophyte, despite significantly outspending his opponent.
The results were a dramatic culmination to the state’s first recall election that pitted Pearce against a fellow Republican, charter school executive Jerry Lewis.
Pearce, lost 53 percent to 45 percent with all 16 voting precincts reporting, according to unofficial Maricopa County Elections results. There are still thousands of early and provisional ballots yet to be counted but even Pearce seemed to nearly concede the race shortly after 9 p.m. at a church across the street from a home where he had been privately watching the results.
Dressed in a white campaign T-shirt and flanked by well-known Republican lawmakers and other politicians, Pearce appeared humble, and at times even upbeat, as he spoke about what certainly would be his exit from power.
“It doesn’t look like the numbers are going my direction on this, and I’m ok with it,” said Pearce, 64. “If being recalled is the price for keeping one’s promises, then so be it.”
Pearce said he would spend time with family to decide what his political future would hold.
Voters’ decision to oust Pearce could have a profound impact on how Arizona — and to a certain extent, the nation — confront illegal immigration. The recall race split the Republican Party, a division that merely pushed to the surface the intraparty schisms over how to confront illegal immigration.
While he didn’t offer anything specific, Lewis, 54, presented his candidacy as a departure from Pearce’s enforcement-only approach to immigration.
Lewis said he would be more collaborative, and during the campaign he often talked about listening to all sides of the issue, notably the federal government.
Lewis, who joined supporters at the home of a prominent Mesa family, appeared upbeat and all smiles.
“I’m overwhelmed with the results and just want to thank all of those voters,” he said. He added that he was thankful to overcome what he described as “negative” campaign tactics against him.
Lewis also overcame one of the most lopsided money races in recent state history. Pearce, whose national fundraising prowess collected donations from more than 40 states, outspent Lewis by a 3-to-1 margin.
The challenger made his feelings about immigration known when he said during the race’s only public debate that Arizona is regarded as unfriendly to business and is seen by some as “something akin to maybe 1964 Alabama.”
Pearce’s position on illegal immigration is well known.
He is the architect of major laws and proposals that ultimately seek to discourage illegal crossing by denying illegal immigrants public benefits. SB1070, the controversial Arizona law that he authored, requires the police to inquire into people’s immigration status if there is suspicion that they’re in the country illegally. That provision is on hold by the courts.
At first, neither campaign really wanted to focus on illegal immigration.
In the end, it became another focal point in the race.
The issue even spilled over into how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints views the problem.
And the candidates’ church formed another backdrop against which the race unfolded.
In June, the church issued a statement that called for a more humane approach to illegal immigration. In that statement, the church declared that the “bedrock moral issue … is how we treat each other as children of God.”
That’s why Pearce’s remarks during the race that he has his church’s consent — or at least some sort of passive approval — to continue pushing for enforcement-only immigration laws left some fellow Mormons astounded by the suggestion he is in perfect harmony with it.
Pearce’s critics said the church’s position is clearly at odds with his approach.
But other church members vigorously defended the senator, arguing that position hews to church canons.
As anticipated, the recall election quickly became one of the most expensive legislative races in the state’s modern history.
The money that Pearce raised expectedly smashed Lewis’ modest fundraising total.
By Oct. 19, Pearce had collected an impressive $230,000 in contributions. Lewis had raised about $69,000.
Meanwhile, independent spending also poured into the district.
Groups that sought to defeat Pearce spent more than $65,000, according to the latest campaign finance report. The race also attracted the interest of organizations based in the nation’s capital.
Another $46,000 was spent by outside groups to support the senator.
That money didn’t even include the nearly $200,000 that was spent just to oppose or promote the recall effort.
Some of the money was burned to attack both candidates and the race’s tone turned decidedly negative.
Pearce went on the offensive as soon as early voting began, about a month before Election Day.
He accused Lewis of “stealing” from homeless kids. This stemmed from his decision to give away clothes and a TV console to a teacher at a school where he served as principal. The items had been donated to the school.
Meanwhile, Pearce’s critics hammered him over his involvement in the Fiesta Bowl scandal.
While he never personally attacked Pearce, Lewis took swipes at his opponent over his Fiesta Bowl involvement.
In one video, Lewis said he would support a gift ban, pledging he “won’t have access to events, tickets, and special privileges that you and your family don’t have.”
But what dominated the headlines is the controversy-ridden candidacy of Olivia Cortes, who is also Republican. Cortes, who withdrew from the race, was plagued by accusations that she ran to siphon off Hispanic votes from Lewis.
Pearce’s critics sued her in court, claiming she was a “diversionary” candidate who was part of a cynical ploy to help Pearce keep his seat.
The ensuing court trial revealed that Cortes was politically naive, a candidate who had little control over her campaign machinery and who didn’t even know who paid for signatures that helped to put her on the ballot.
During the trial, one of Pearce’s supporters testified that he recruited Cortes. Others, including Republican Party officers, said they gathered signatures for Cortes despite knowing little about her background.
The trial court judge, however, declined to kick her off the ballot, arguing that it’s not the court’s job to “examine and be the final arbiter of the motives political candidates may have.”
But just before she was scheduled to take part in the race’s only public debate, Cortes quit. She struck a deal to voluntarily withdraw in exchange of the lawsuit’s dismissal.
Pearce maintained he had nothing to do with her candidacy.
His close allies lamented his defeat.
“What District 18 has done is traded the most successful legislator in the country for somebody who will be very unsuccessful,” said Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a Republican from Gilbert.
Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Pearce’s exit means the Legislature has lost a “great and experienced leader.”
Senate Majority Leader Any Biggs said he finds it “deeply disturbing” that Pearce was recalled as a punishment for keeping his promises.