Does Pearce recall signify change in Arizona political climate?

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This week we're tackling the debate on whether or not the recall of Russell Pearce signifies a change in the Arizona political climate.

Michael J. O'Neil, president of O'Neil Associate, a national public opinion research firm headquartered in Tempe, says the election of Pearce and most of the legislature has always reflected more the rules of the game than the attitudes of the Arizona population.

Shane Wikfors, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party, says the political reality is that the recall of Russell Pearce was actually a political anomaly rather than a shifting of Arizona's political tectonic plates.

So, does the Pearce recall signify a change in the Arizona political climate?

Click "next page" to read the first of two positions, " Pearce recall was a political anomaly ".

Pearce recall was a political anomaly": By Shane Wikfors, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party

Several liberal activists and left-leaning media personalities have argued that the recent recall election of State Senator Russell Pearce has swung Arizona's political pendulum dramatically to the left. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The political reality is that the recall of Russell Pearce was actually a political anomaly rather than a shifting of Arizona's political tectonic plates. Allow me to explain why the average political observer should not be misled by those who claim Pearce's defeat signals a change in our political climate.

Recall elections avoid the typical and traditional election outcome. Those who schemed and orchestrated the recall effort knew this and used an abnormal election scenario to carry out their goal. It worked.

The recall cadre was successful in pulling off their plot to overthrow Arizona's Senate President in several ways:

First, recallers manipulated their message to transform Russell Pearce into a political ‘bogeyman' by claiming he was ‘too extreme.' Many of Senator Pearce's public policy positions were not considered extreme at all. In fact, Governor Brewer and a vast majority of the Arizona Legislature supported and voted for Pearce's legislative agenda to strengthen Arizona's immigration laws. Why haven't recallers taken up their grievances against other lawmakers? The  simple answer is that they wanted a high-profile political ‘trophy' to send a message that no Republican is ‘safe.'

Second, the recall plotters relied heavily on outside, concealed and unreported money by outside groups like Organizing for America to carry out their plan of attack. While the recall effort itself spent just over $141,000 in ‘reported' money to defeat Pearce, what they won't reveal is that their outside allies spent an estimated $200,000 - $250,000 in unreported money attacking Pearce. That money was spent in a way to damage Pearce's personal image so badly, that many in his own district no longer recognized the Russell Pearce whom they had voted for over many prior elections.

Third, recall activists took advantage of a single special election opportunity by elevating the recall election as a high profile event. Local media (and even national media) had no choice but to play into recallers hands by covering the election giving it higher than average media attention. It became a political circus which the recall cabal used to further mar Pearce's image and drive frenzied voters to the polls.

During normal election years when there are a multitude of political races occurring, fiercely contested races are oftentimes drowned out by surrounding high volume political "noise." In November 2011, with the exception of the adjacent Phoenix election, the loudest political "noise" was the recall election.

Finally, the recall coup combined all these factors to game the electoral process and avoid a traditional partisan primary election. Unlike during a normal primary election in which Republicans vote for their nominee, Pearce's opponents injected Democrat voters into the process thereby giving Republican Jerry Lewis a marginal numeric advantage over Pearce. Recall activists exploited the process by diluting a typical primary election with energized Democrat voters.

With all these factors combined, liberal recall activists managed to pull off an abnormal election victory by targeting and tarnishing a specific Republican official, circumventing and obfuscating the campaign finance system and electoral process and manipulating and exploiting voters in the district. If anything, the recall election was clearly not a change in Arizona's political climate.

If the recall election signaled any type of change, it's that Arizonans are tired of a stealthy manipulation of the political process. That's exactly what liberal activists got away with in the recall election while they touted their ‘success' as a dramatic shift in the political climate. As a result, Arizonans are demanding a change in our political system requiring more transparency, accountability and playing by the rules. Democrats and liberal activists know this and resist reform at every turn. They've turned our political system into a game at which they can cheat.

The plain-spoken truth is that Arizonans do trust in their principled Republican leadership. Yes, the voters of Arizona still maintain a high level of confidence in their Republican officials and leadership. This is evident in the overwhelming support for reasonable, fair and strengthened immigration and workplace laws. Arizonans overwhelmingly support Governor Brewer and her effort to fight off the Obama Administration's lawsuits against the State of Arizona.

And under the leadership of Governor Brewer and the Legislature, Republicans passed a fiscally-solvent and responsible balanced budget that does not incorporate gimmicks, borrow or burden our children's future. This is they kind of change Arizonans desire and it's the form of governing Republicans will continue to guarantee. (After all, that was demonstrated in 2010 when the voters gave Republicans a sweep of all statewide offices and supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.)

Political change will continue to occur in Arizona but it won't be the kind of change Democrats and liberals hope for. Republicans will continue to reform and strengthen Arizona and the voters will reward them for their leadership and success

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

Click "next page" to read the second position, " Election reflects more the rules of the game"

"Election reflects more the rules of the game: By Michael O'Neil, president of O'Neil Associate, a national public opinion research firm headquartered in Tempe

I've been asked to comment on the extent to which the demise of Russell Pearce represents a return to moderation in Arizona politics – and to take the position that it does.

The form of the question presumes that Arizona took an attitudinal turn to the hard right in electing not only Russell Pearce but also many of his colleagues in the state legislature--and that his recall represents a return to a more moderate normalcy.

My 30 plus years spent studying the sensibilities of the Arizona population leads me to reject the premise upon which this question was posed. The election of Pearce and most of the legislature has always reflected more the rules of the game than the attitudes of the Arizona population. The lopsided partisan registration in the vast majority of Arizona legislative districts means that we can predict the outcome of most legislative elections years in advance—even before we know the names of the candidates. As a result, the only votes that count are those cast in the primary election of the dominant party in a specific district—a tiny fraction of the electorate which greatly over represents political extremists.   And the district lines are currently drawn so that Republicans have a clear majority of completely safe districts. (The Republicans in the legislature know this: that is why they are so visibly terrified that the Independent Redistricting Commission will draw district lines that do not effortlessly guarantee their re-election).

In the case of Russell Pearce, his positions were so extreme and his focus was so singularly on the issue of immigration that the most reliable polling indicates that he lost even among Republicans in his district. But this exception should no obscure the underlying rule: in District 18 in Mesa as in most districts in Arizona, ANY candidate with an "R" next to his name wins easily.  (The reverse is true in a smaller number of mostly Hispanic districts, where the Democrat wins similarly).

Only a handful of districts are genuinely competitive. The lucky residents of those few districts experience true democracy. This fact distorts the election results: while Arizonans are very close attitudinally to the nation as a whole, the Arizona legislature is among the most hard-right "tea party" bodies in the country. And they misleadingly distort the image of the state.

On most issues, the Arizona electorate differs only marginally from the nation as a whole.  So when Arizonans endorsed SB1070, that support was virtually identical in the rest of the country. And, I believe it reflected the economic fears that get inflamed in economic turndowns as well as general support for obeying the law. (The phrase "what part of illegal do you not understand" does resonate with a public who plays by the rules and thinks others should do the same). But this same Arizona electorate has also expressed widespread support for comprehensive immigration reform (often vilified in the Arizona legislature as "amnesty") and public opposition to the more extreme post-SB1070 measures Pearce attempted to get through the legislature.

This disconnect between the legislature and the public also explains how we can have a legislature that sees tax cutting as a religion--and a public that has regularly been willing to tax itself—when the taxes are clearly identifiably allocated to a high-priority area.  The recent strong public vote for a sales tax targeted to maintaining education funding—over the vehement objections of the legislature is only the most recent case in point.   In the middle of the budgetary crisis, we had asked about spending priorities in seven areas.  In only one, prisons, did respondents want to see spending reduced. In the other six, the respondents wanted to see more, not less, state spending.

When the legislature took a meat axe to the state budget, however, only one area was spared: prisons. Complete disconnect. And the same disconnect is evident between the results of every independent poll of voter attitudes in the state and the actions of our legislature.  But as long as their districts are noncompetitive, it won't matter. They will get re-elected. The game is fixed.

Do you agree with this opinion? Add a comment below to sound off.

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