Without a single voted counted yet in Tuesday's recall election of state Senate President Russell Pearce, political observers say the historic race is impacting Arizona's political landscape.
The virtual tie in polls between Pearce and fellow Republican Jerry Lewis reveals how much voters have turned on the politician who sponsored popular illegal immigration law SB 1070.
Many voters have come to see Pearce as a symbol of politicians who fight each other at the expense of championing issues more important to their daily lives, said David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University. Others have been turned off by the campaign and a suspected sham candidate believed to help Pearce, he said.
The election is the first time in Arizona's 99 years that a legislator has been recalled.
"The fact that this is so close is significant because it does send a warning shot to other people in power as to what might happen to them," Berman said. "This is a weapon that's sort of been silent. Nobody's ever thought of it much. Now people have said this is something we can do."
Lewis was leading Pearce by 46 percent to 43 percent, according to a Nov. 1 poll commissioned by The Arizona Capitol Times and ABC 15 (KNXV-TV). That's within the margin of error.
The tightness shows voter frustration with the extreme wings of both parties, said Earl de Berge, a pollster with the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center. De Berge said the recent polls changed his belief that Pearce is invincible because of his incumbency and the Republican-leaning base of legislative District 18.
"If he loses, it will be a sea change in the state. It should embolden moderates and liberals to get more active," de Berge said. "This is a test of whether or not at the grass roots level people can overcome the old-time machinery."
Of the district's 70,835 voters, 37 percent are registered Republicans and 26 percent are Democrats.
Lewis was 5 or 6 points ahead in a poll conducted a month ago by Tucson-based pollster Margaret Kenski. About 22 percent were undecided, Kenski said.
Pearce has made the recall about his signature issue of illegal immigration. But Kenski said the election is about different things to different people.
Her recent polls have found that voters are more concerned about the economy, jobs and education. Those issues have edged out illegal immigration as the former top issue, Kenski said.
Even when looking at illegal immigration, polls have found voters aren't as strident as Pearce, she said. They almost all want a secure border but there's more acceptance for guest workers, the notion that Americans won't do some jobs and some version of the Dream Act.
For some voters, it's about the perceived focus of Pearce and the Legislature.
"A lot of it has to do with style and balance and trying to get things done," Kenski said. "I look at the national data and I look at state data and people want to see problems solved and I think they're kind of tired with a lot of the intense partisan bickering in politics and with the parties."
Pearce still has the advantage because virtually all GOP politicians in the state have backed him and he's raised more than three times his opponent, Berman said.
"If he screws up, it's his own fault because he has all those things going for him," he said.
He believes Pearce lost some support by labeling critics "far left anarchists" and with the brief candidacy of Olivia Cortes, who did virtually no campaigning and did not know who posted signs on her behalf. She was backed by Pearce's relatives and a tea party activist who previously supported Pearce, raising allegations she was placed on the ballot to split the votes.
"They were doing what they thought politicians do, what comes naturally," Berman said. "They probably were a little surprised at how the people reacted to it."
Political observers said a Lewis victory could make recalls more common. Voters could use it to fight politicians embroiled in scandals or those who have strayed too far, they said. And in the state's numerous legislative districts dominated by one party, the minority party might put up stronger campaigns instead of figuring a dominant party is unbeatable, de Berge said.
"The majority of voters in this state are either moderate or leading to soft conservativism rather than being hardcore right-wing, as Pearce is," de Berge said. "If somebody in Pearce's district can be really, seriously challenged by this, they have to ask, ‘What kind of politics do we really want here and is that reflected at the Legislature?' It also casts light on whether the fear of running in these districts might be overcome by the strength of organization."
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