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Tired of 'venom' over illegal immigration, voters in Arizona oust Russell Pearce

Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, architect of the state's tough law to curb illegal immigration, lost his job on Tuesday. Many voters are fed up with polarizing stances, analysts say.

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Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce (l.) speaks about his recall election during a news conference in Mesa, Arizona, Tuesday.

Joshua Lott/Reuters

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In an apparent rebuke to his hard-line politics, Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce was recalled by voters Tuesday. Senator Pearce was the author of the state's tough anti-illegal immigration law that has spawned copycat laws in several states from Utah to Alabama.

Senator Pearce's crusade against illegal immigration made him a national icon but ultimately factored into his historic recall.

His defeat, at the hands of political novice Jerry Lewis, puts a different face on Arizona and signals that voters are ready to take state politics in a new direction, says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and professor emeritus at Arizona State University in Tempe.

“Most Arizonans are pretty moderate, and I think they just got tired of all of the venom and all of the bitterness,” he says. “It really became more – to some degree – that Russell Pearce was somewhat of an embarrassment.”

Moderates turned out to vote in high numbers, Mr. Merrill says. Hispanics, many of whom oppose Pearce’s hard stance on immigration policies, also were crucial to ousting one of the most powerful politicos in the state, he adds.

The senator lost his seat to Mr. Lewis, a fellow Republican, 53 percent to 45 percent in a hotly contested race to represent Mesa, Ariz., a conservative district east of Phoenix that Pearce had represented in the Arizona Legislature for 11 years.

“If being recalled is the prize for keeping one’s promises, then so be it,” Pearce told a crowd late Tuesday as the vote tally showed he trailed Lewis, a school administrator.

Lewis had figured he was in an uphill battle to replace Pearce, who had Arizona Republican Party backing and widespread financial help from beyond the district. Nationwide, foes of illegal immigration also offered support.

“When we started this campaign, we were under no illusion as to the odds of our success,” Lewis told supporters in his victory speech.

The candidates focused largely on the economy during a volatile campaign. A third candidate, a Latina who was accused of entering the race to split the vote in favor of Pearce, dropped out before the election. Both men are fiscal conservatives, but their views on illegal immigration differ starkly.

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