Recall in Arizona
What Tuesday’s mixed electoral results really tell us


Patrick Brennan

Tuesday’s mixed electoral results have both Republicans and Democrats scrambling to find good omens for their respective parties. But liberals have seized on one surprising event in particular: For the first time in American history, a state-senate president, Russell Pearce of Arizona, was defeated in a recall election.

Pearce was the architect of a nationally controversial immigration law, SB 1070, which essentially required that immigrants provide legal documentation when stopped, for other reasons, by law enforcement. This gave him a national reputation as a radical conservative who had labeled his own legislature a “tea-party Senate.”

Liberal media are attempting to cite the recall as a sharp repudiation of the Republican party’s stance on immigration — and the extremist nature of the Republican party as a whole. At The Atlantic, Molly Hill argued that “on the most controversial questions, voters seemed to recoil from the GOP’s attempts to push further to the right. Pearce, in Arizona, was a case in point.”

But a closer examination of the election suggests this was not the case. Former representative John Shadegg explains in an interview with National Review Online that he feels the election and its message were “way overblown. . . . Quite frankly, reading a lot into this election is a mistake.” The surprising result of the race — the recall of a powerful Republican leader in a very conservative district — came down to two factors, neither of which should be of particular concern to Republicans, statewide or nationally: The unusual rules under which the election was held, and Pearce’s demeanor and personal reputation.

Firstly, Shadegg explains, “It is very important to understand the procedural differences between this election and a normal election” — which made it meaningless as an electoral barometer. The race functioned essentially as an open primary, with the only choices on Election Day being two Republicans: Pearce, and a slightly more moderate, but hardly centrist, Mesa accountant named Jerry Lewis. Shadegg argues that this means “the more moderate of the two candidates gets a huge leg up.” By the median-voter theorem, Lewis would win inevitably, so long as he was slightly more moderate than Pearce. Such a dynamic applies in a contest like this one, in which the “extremist” Republican is inevitably not the median-voter choice, but won’t apply to other races, in which a Democratic opponent is no more likely to be closer to the median voter than the Republican.

The recall election was such a bizarre situation that, as Shadegg notes, many believe Pearce will run again in 2012, and if so, he will likely win the primary with his substantial resources. They also believe he will triumph in the general election as a Republican; it is difficult to see a Democrat winning this district.

Secondly, this election cannot be called a referendum on SB 1070, the Arizona state senate’s policies, or the tea-party movement. As Bob Robb of the Arizona Republic points out to National Review Online, if Arizona voters disapproved of their state’s immigration policies, they could and would have organized a referendum to repeal them, rather than recall only one of the state legislators who voted for them.

Rather, Robb points out, “among many audiences, his larger-than-life political persona had worn thin.” Pearce had developed a reputation for more than just a hard-line stance on illegal immigration. (Some of his fellow legislators were even to his right on the issue.) He also harped on the issue “extremely bluntly and unnecessarily,” to quote Shadegg, when many voters wanted to focus on the deplorable economy. Furthermore, he also had developed a bad reputation for cozy relationships with lobbyists and special interests. Lewis, for instance, cited his business background in contrast with Pearce’s political reputation. This electoral dynamic, if repeated elsewhere, seems unlikely to hinder tea-party candidates and Republicans.

Robb concedes that the “rejection of Pearce’s political brand,” singular though it may be, does indicate that overemphasis on illegal-immigration enforcement is not a foolproof political strategy. Republican candidates would do well to avoid pressing the issue in such a way as to become offensive, but this is hardly a concern either.

Of course, few political races around America involve so much discussion of immigration, but even if they do, Republicans don’t have much to fear about being painted as extremists on the issue. Among the possible Republican presidential nominees (and vice-presidential picks), maybe the most stridently anti-immigration stance has been Herman Cain’s accidental, possibly facetious, statement that he would like to construct an electric fence on the Mexican border. Meanwhile, the ostensibly very conservative Rick Perry has stressed his pragmatic approach and expertise on immigration.

Given that illegal immigration is mostly a primary issue for Republicans, Robb notes, it isn’t going to hinder them going forward, and an election that hinged on one demagogue’s flaying of the issue should not alarm Republicans nationally.

Liberals may claim that the Grand Canyon State’s recall election reveals a growing rift in American politics, a rift in which an extremist Republican party has chosen the wrong side. But in fact it reveals no such thing.

— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley fellow.