Jerry Lewis may have inadvertently become the poster boy of a movement to radically overhaul Arizona’s election system.
When Lewis defeated outgoing Sen. Russell Pearce, a conservative Tea Party favorite, in a Nov. 8 recall election, he did so with the votes of Democrats, Republicans and independents in District 18.
It was the first and possibly best example Arizona had to offer for the Open Government Committee, which is organizing a 2012 ballot measure to create a “top-two” primary system.
But some observers warn that the unique circumstances surrounding Pearce’s ouster aren’t likely to repeat themselves in future races. In a traditional election season, they say, the top-two primary probably won’t yield the same results.
The committee is pushing the top-two system, in which all candidates run on the same ballot in the primary and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, a Democrat-turned-independent who is spearheading the initiative, said the Pearce recall showed what can happen when all voters simply get to choose between the top two candidates.
Most elections in Arizona are decided in the primary, when the parties’ bases come out in full force and the more moderate voters are more likely to stay home, which Johnson said favors more extreme candidates. But in a system where everyone can vote and the top two vote-getters face each other in the general election, supporters say it favors the more centrist candidate, as it did in the recall election, which pitted two Republicans against each other in a general election-style matchup.
“It shows the change in outcome that happens when all voters have the ability to have a say on a candidate, not just the people inside the primary in safe districts where general elections tend to not happen,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the committee’s fundraising has even picked up since Pearce was recalled. Not only did it provide an example of what an open primary can do, he said, but the constant post-election sniping by Pearce’s allies that the more moderate Lewis isn’t Republican enough has been a boon for the committee.
“That story netted us money. There were people who read that story that were offended. They don’t see the world in terms of ‘we’re supposed to do the Republican thing or the Democratic thing.’ They think we’re supposed to do the American thing,” Johnson said. “The more that they beat up on Jerry Lewis, the better it is for us because that just makes our point.”
Lobbyist Chris Herstam, of the firm Lewis & Roca, said the recall showed how much of an impact the top-two initiative could have on the state Capitol. He said the recall was an opportunity for voters to see how the system would work in a situation where it produced a more moderate elected official.
“The Russell Pearce recall turned out to be a fascinating pilot project for the Paul Johnson, open government-proposed initiative now on the streets. It allowed all voters to participate in one election, and allowed them to dilute, in this case, the right wing ideology that Pearce represents and produced a victory for the more moderate candidate,” Herstam said.
While polling showed Lewis with a lot of Republican support, there’s no question that he couldn’t have won without the support of Democrats and independents who largely shunned Pearce. The last time Pearce faced a primary challenge, in 2008, he won 69 percent of the vote. But in the recall, in which more than twice as many people voted as in the 2008 primary, he took only 43 percent.
But the recall election may not be the harbinger that some top-two advocates are hoping. A lot of specific circumstances contributed to the recall, such as Pearce’s abrasive style, his involvement in the Fiesta Bowl scandal and the rift in Mesa’s Mormon community over illegal immigration that stemmed from a recent statement by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And Pearce was a special target for Democrats, who bristled at his hard-line stance on illegal immigration, his powerful position as Senate president and his substantial influence over state policy. Liberals launched the recall effort that put him on the ballot and poured money into the campaign in support of Lewis.
“I think Paul Johnson and his crew will do their very best to make the point that we tested it, it was successful, we got the bad guy out. Let’s keep doing this. That was an incorrect conclusion to draw. But they’ll try and make it so,” said attorney Lee Miller, who serves as counsel for the Arizona Republican Party. “That election was exceptionally unique.”
And Lewis didn’t have to get through a top-two primary to reach the general. Because recall elections don’t have primaries, he and Pearce skipped what would have normally been the first round and went straight to a head-to-head matchup in the general election.
Constantin Querard, a consultant who worked on Pearce’s campaign, said most districts won’t put forward two candidates from the same party, even if they lean strongly one way. Democrats made a conscious effort to stay out of the recall. Had a Democrat run, it could’ve easily cost Lewis the race.
And even if a district does choose two members of the same party in the primary, few Democrats will spend money and resources trying to elect a Republican in an election cycle with dozens of other races, Querard said. Democrats were able to galvanize behind Lewis because there were few other races to deal with during the off-year.
“In a regular general election, when you’re trying to elect presidents and senators and governors and all these others things, how much time and resources are the Democrats going to put into electing a more liberal Republican in a district?” Querard said. “They’re not going to drop 300 grand and 4,000 man hours into trying to pick up a House seat in (a legislative district).”
Pollster Bruce Merrill, of Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said most primaries won’t see the kind of turnout that occurred in the District 18 recall. After all, the reason moderates have trouble in primaries is because those elections are dominated by the parties’ more ideological bases, which traditionally have higher turnout.
“The moderates and independents simply don’t vote,” said Merrill, who recently conducted a poll showing 58 percent support for the top-two primary.
Johnson acknowledged that the example isn’t perfect.
“That could’ve been a different result if you would’ve had five candidates running,” he said.