- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

He’s an Arizona state senator who probably wouldn’t be recognized on the street outside of Mesa, yet the recall election of Russell Pearce is poised to become the biggest race of the 2011 cycle.

Whether Mr. Pearce should be able to keep the seat he won in November isn’t really the point. This race is all about subtext. It’s border security versus immigrant rights. It’s guns versus butter. It’s the power of the state to enforce its laws versus the authority of the federal government.

Russell Pearce is the poster boy, but the real issue is whether a state can take these problems and deal with them themselves when the federal government won’t,” said former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a former Republican presidential candidate who is firmly in the Pearce camp.

The recall effort is part of the fallout from Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the 2010 law that requires anyone detained by police and suspected of being an illegal immigrant to show documentation. The bill, signed into law last year but suspended by the courts in the face of legal challenges, was sponsored by Mr. Pearce.

Critics say the law encourages racial profiling and discrimination against Hispanics. Even so, several states have introduced copycat measures since the Arizona law was enacted, arguing that state action is needed to control illegal immigration in the absence of strong federal enforcement.

National groups on both sides of the issue are expected to pour cash into the Nov. 8 recall election. Mr. Tancredo’s group, Team America, held a fundraiser for Mr. Pearce in June, even before the effort had qualified for the ballot.

“This race is about making a statement,” said Michael O'Neil, an Arizona political analyst and president of O’Neil Research in Tempe. “It could be a multimillion-dollar state Senate race on both sides. By a factor of 10 or 100, it’s going to be the most expensive state legislative race in state history.”

The campaign already has made state history. No lawmaker in Arizona has ever been subject to a recall election, mainly because of the timing involved.

State representatives and senators serve two-year terms. In the time it takes for a politician to do something that voters might consider worthy of recall, and then have organizers gather enough signatures to force a recall, and then have the signatures certified as authentic, and then have the governor place the recall on the ballot … it’s usually time for the lawmaker to face re-election on the regular cycle.

Citizens for a Better Arizona, the group pushing the recall effort, solved this problem by launching its petition drive in January, about the same time that Mr. Pearce was being sworn into office after winning election in November.

The organization submitted more than 17,000 signatures. Of those, 10,365 were declared valid July 8 by state and county officials. The petitions had about 3,000 more signatures than necessary to force the recall and were submitted barely in time to qualify the recall for the Nov. 8 ballot.

“We all have our limits and Senator Pearce’s behavior has clearly demonstrated that he is indeed too extreme for Mesa and Arizona,” the group said in a recent statement.

Pearce attorney Lisa Hauser filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the validity of the signatures in Maricopa County Superior Court, alleging mistakes on the petition forms. A spokesman for the recall camp called the lawsuit desperate.

“It’s a very, very desperate attempt by a desperate man who wants to avoid an election he can’t win,” organizer Chad Snow told the Arizona Republic newspaper. “We made sure we were complying at every step because we kind of anticipated something like this.”

Arizona political analysts tend to give Mr. Pearce a better than average chance of keeping his seat, for several reasons. He has served as a state representative or senator from District 18 since 2000 without ever losing a race. As a Mormon Republican, he fits the district’s demographic profile.

His backing of Senate Bill 1070 may have earned him the censure of the Obama administration - the Justice Department is among those challenging the law - but the law remains popular in Arizona. Gov. Jan Brewer’s decision to sign the bill last year is widely viewed as the move that won her the Republican primary and allowed her to coast to re-election.

“Clearly she was in favor of 1070 and clearly it helped her,” said Ed Phillips, a spokesman for Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall.

Mrs. Brewer also was targeted for recall this year, but obtaining the number of signatures required to recall a statewide figure proved too difficult.

“It was the same people, the open-borders type,” Mr. Phillips said. “The difference is, he’s a smaller target.”

Weighing against Mr. Pearce is that he won’t be the Republican Party nominee because none of the candidates on the recall ballot will go through a primary. The ideal scenario for the anti-Pearce side would be one opponent, preferably another Mormon Republican, Mr. O'Neil said.

No candidate has filed to run against Mr. Pearce, but rumor has it that he could be challenged by Republican Jerry Lewis, a charter-schools executive who is a leader of the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mr. Lewis released a statement Friday saying he will make a decision this week.

“If [Mr. Pearce] gets several opponents, game over. He could win with 40 percent of the vote,” Mr. O'Neil said. “The Democrats have to be smart and stay out. They can’t win in this district.”

Whatever the result, analysts predict the Pearce election will inject a large dose of excitement into the typically humdrum off-year election cycle.

“This will be a big race,” Mr. Tancredo said. “He’s a nationwide leader on immigration issues. There’s going to be money coming in from all over the place.”

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