Russell Pearce has been a favorite of voters in Legislative District 18 for the past 16 years, easily winning elections to the Arizona House and Senate from the largely Republican base of constituents in Mesa.
Given that track record, he’ll tell you he’s not worried about the upcoming recall election in November brought about by Citizens for a Better Arizona.
He should be.
Recall elections in Arizona — which are rare — are a completely different animal than normal elections.
A normal partisan election includes a primary, where candidates must first win their party’s nomination. In the Republican stronghold that is LD 18, that is where the real battle is won. Republicans who lean farther right (and Pearce is on the extreme right) tend to emerge from the primary. And from there, the Republican nominee is a shoo-in to defeat his Democratic opponent in the general election in this district.
But in a recall election, there is no primary — just a nonpartisan, winner-take-all election. Any number of candidates, from any number of parties, can run for office.
That’s good and bad news for Pearce.
The good news for Pearce is that there could be a large number of candidates who oppose him. The more candidates there are, the more the “anti-Pearce vote” will be split among them. In a recall, only the top vote-getter wins, regardless of whether he or she gets a majority of the votes. Pearce could get 30 percent of the votes and still win if the other 70 percent are split among six or seven candidates.
Given that, be prepared for allegations of “candidate-stuffing” should we see a large number of people vying for Pearce’s Senate seat (remember the accusations from Democrats when a number of Green Party candidates suddenly emerged last November, theoretically recruited by Republicans to take votes away from Democrat candidates?).
The bad news for Pearce is that, because it is a nonpartisan election, there will likely be at least one fellow Republican running against him. If that GOP opponent takes just one-fourth of the conservative vote (likely from more moderate Republicans), that spells trouble for Pearce.
In November, Pearce won the general election with 17,552 votes, easily beating Democrat Andrew Sherwood (10,663) and Libertarian Andrea Garcia (2,808). But in a recall election, those 13,471 votes that went to Sherwood/Garcia, plus just 25 percent of the Republican vote (4,388), could easily turn the tide in favor of a new would-be challenger.
That challenger will not be Sherwood. Honestly, any Democrat would be foolish to throw his hat in the ring and siphon votes away from a more moderate Republican candidate who has a better chance of defeating Pearce.
“Russell would like to turn this into a partisan election, and I am not taking the bait,” Sherwood told the Tribune this week. “This isn’t a conventional election where two political parties select candidates. This is Mesa residents stepping forward saying ‘I will serve.’ That’s how I see this. We need a bipartisan coalition to defeat Russell Pearce.”
Sherwood said the ideal candidate would be someone who is plugged into the business world, well known in the community, big on education, and can do some fundraising in a very short amount of time.
“This election is going to happen lightning-fast,” Sherwood said. “In that time frame, you’ve got to do triple the amount of signature-gathering while simultaneously campaigning and fundraising. … This person has to be energetic. They need to be everywhere all the time.”
Thus far, only one little-known candidate has thrown his hat into the ring against Pearce. Tommy Joseph Cattey, a 62-year-old audiologist and registered independent, announced his candidacy last week. Charter schools executive Jerry Lewis has expressed interest and could make an announcement early this week.
All they need is 621 valid signatures from district voters — and the fortitude to run against Pearce, whom many consider the most powerful member of the Republican Party in Arizona.
Armed with that, and the fact that this is a nonpartisan recall election, and anything could happen.