- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2011

PHOENIX — Last week’s recall election defeat of the Republican legislator who wrote Arizona’s tough anti-immigration law and the election of Democratic mayors in Phoenix and Tucson have given Democrats renewed hope for picking up the state in next year’s Senate and presidential elections.

Combined, the outcomes underscored the diversity of voters in what many view as a conservative state even though voters here are split nearly in thirds among Republicans, independents and Democrats.

The Democratic Party argued that Tuesday’s recall of state Senate President Russell Pearce was evidence of a broader shift to the left that will reverberate in 2012.

“For the first time in 20 years, we will have Democratic mayors of Tucson and Phoenix” [at the same time], state Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny wrote in an email to supporters. “And for the first time in American history, a state legislative leader - the most powerful politician in Arizona - was recalled from office. These are victories for all Arizonans - ones that six months ago would have seemed all but impossible.”

Republicans dismissed Tuesday’s results as coming from an “abnormal election” funded by out-of-state interests upset by Arizona’s 2010 enactment of the groundbreaking immigration enforcement law known as SB1070.

“They thought this proved a point. It didn’t,” Arizona Republican Party chairman Tom Morrissey said. “It will all be undone in the next election. It was a power grab by the left. They won a battle; they have not won the war, by any means.”

But the rhetoric, new polls and the emphasis being put on Arizona by the Democrats and President Obama’s campaign indicates that the state - which on the surface appears solidly red, with its two longtime Republican U.S. senators, a Republican near-sweep of statewide offices and one of the country’s most conservative legislatures - is heading into the 2012 elections solidly purple.

In the 2008 presidential race, Arizona was a given for home-state candidate John McCain, the Republican nominee. And while Republican Gov. Jan Brewer was an easy winner in 2010, Democrat Janet Napolitano twice won gubernatorial races in the past decade.

“I think that some on the East Coast don’t put us there,” Mr. Cherny said. “But every indication is we are there. The Obama campaign has said Arizona is at the top of the places they are looking at to compete very hard.”

Obama spokeswoman Ofelia Casillas said, the state will play a “critical role” in 2012 and has been among the battleground states where its grass-roots movement, Organizing for America, has been active. The campaign has also recently hired a Mexican-American regional field director and a Mexican-American fellow who is focused on reaching out to the Hispanic community, which makes up nearly 30 percent of the state’s population.

A recent Rocky Mountain Poll from October showed Mr. Obama either about even or apparently ahead of three Republican presidential contenders: Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

The same survey also found that only 38 percent of the state’s voters call themselves conservative. Thirty-four percent consider themselves moderate while 28 percent call themselves liberal.

Democrats’ hopes in the 2012 U.S. Senate race may have risen last week when Richard Carmona officially entered the race for the seat now held by retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. The former surgeon general under President George W. Bush was aggressively recruited by Democratic leaders who hope he will appeal to the state’s moderate and independent voters.

Mr. Carmona describes himself as an independent and notes that Republicans in the past had also recruited him to run for office. He’ll face lesser-known Don Bivens, a lawyer and former state party chairman, in the primary, while Rep. Jeff Flake and businessman Will Cardon will battle for the Republican nomination.

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