PHOENIX (Reuters) - A top Arizona Republican lawmaker who championed the state’s crackdown against illegal immigration is fighting to keep his job in a recall election on Tuesday that is believed to be too close to call.
Senate President Russell Pearce, the chief architect of the Arizona immigration law that set off a national debate in 2010, will square off against Republican political newcomer Jerry Lewis in what will be a historic election for the state.
It is believed to be the first recall election of a state legislator in Arizona history, election officials said.
Pearce has launched an aggressive campaign in the weeks leading up to Election Day, sticking to his get-tough stance on illegal immigrants and broadening his overall message on the hot button issues of the day.
He cites a balanced state budget and an economy on the rebound as chief among his accomplishments in the state Legislature, where he has served since 2001.
“I just want people to know the complete story,” said Pearce, 64, in an interview from his state Capitol office. “We’ve led the nation on so many fronts and I’m leading that charge. But I’m as strong as I’ve ever been on immigration.”
Pearce criticized Lewis for saying that Arizona is seen as “something akin to maybe 1964 Alabama,” a reference to Alabama’s opposition to civil rights for blacks in the 60s. He said that the state is upholding “the rule of law” and that he is working with officials in 34 other states on similar policies.
But his opponent claims that it is time to replace Pearce, saying his tone and tactics have tarnished the state’s image for too long.
Lewis, 55, a charter school administrator, said Arizona needs a lawmaker who has the ability to build consensus among various groups and not be a polarizing figure.
“I truly believe I can bring a voice of sensibility and reason to the whole immigration problem,” said Lewis, who became disenchanted with Pearce’s methods about five years ago. “Let’s bring the federal government to the table and work with them, not file a lawsuit against them. That’s the approach we need to take.”
He said he has the management and financial experience to help lead Arizona through these tough economic times.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Pearce supporter, called for the recall election in July after a citizens group turned in enough valid signatures to force it.
Citizens for a Better Arizona said that Pearce must be removed because his agenda and behavior were “too extreme for Arizona.” This despite the fact that Pearce has just one year remaining in his current term.
Lewis announced his candidacy later that month.
Also joining the race was Olivia Cortes, a mystery hopeful who was immediately branded a “sham candidate” by opponents claiming she was recruited by Pearce backers to pull votes away from Lewis.
Cortes eventually withdrew from the race, but her decision came too late to remove her name from the ballot early last month.
An independent poll — the only one that has been released on the race — shows that Lewis is locked in a dead heat with the incumbent as the election approaches.
The survey, commissioned by the Arizona Capitol Times newspaper and ABC 15 television news, shows that voters likely to cast ballots gave Lewis a 46 percent to 43 percent edge on Pearce. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.95 percent.
Nearly 600 likely voters were surveyed by telephone on November 1. Of that total, about 66 percent were Republicans and 24 percent were Democrats, with 5.4 percent registered as independents.
This despite Pearce having outraised his opponent by a 3-to-1 margin, according to the latest campaign spending reports.
Pearce has collected more than $230,000 in contributions to his campaign, with a large chunk of the money coming from out-of-state. Lewis has garnered nearly $70,000 from mostly local donors.
The impact of the election may extend beyond the borders of the 70,000-voter legislative district in Mesa, Arizona.
“Immigration is still a major issue, not just in Arizona, but across the country,” said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University pollster and political scientist. “People will be watching to see what happens.”
Editing by Greg McCune