With the signatures still being counted on the recall campaign against Arizona Majority Leader Russell Pearce, it is a good time to note that of the 20 state legislative recalls in US History, only two have been against legislative leaders.
Overthrowing a legislative leader is a major undertaking, In his great book The Ambition and The Power, John Barry compares it to regicide. While legislative leaders (especially Democrats) do loses races, or are overthrown in palace coups, there is usually a reason they are in charge of the chamber -- they generally have the stronger than average political skills. Additionally, despite recent electoral surprises, like US Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the legislative leaders are frequently selected from extremely one-party safe districts.
In this article in the Arizona Capitol Times, I looked at both of the recalls against legislative leaders.
I found a comment to the piece very instructive. The commentator argues that the point of the recall against Pearce may not be to defeat him (which frankly seems like a longshot in that district and with the issues they are using), but instead to knock him down a peg, and serve as a warning shot against anyone backing the issues that Pearce supports (such as his stand on immigration).
Both of the former legislative leader recalls followed a similar line of arguments. The first one, against California Senator David Roberti in May 1994, was a clear interest-group recall. He was targeted specifically because of his stance in favor of gun control legislative, and gun rights supporters were very clear that they wanted Roberti to serve as an example. Due to other factors, specifically the Republican wave that came later that year, gun control has never recovered as an issue. Hard to give to much credit to the recall of Roberti.
From another perspective the Roberti recall served as a strong warning. Roberti was nearing the end of his tenure in the Senate, and he decided to run for state Treasurer. His run failed. He has good claims in saying that the recall damaged his chances of success -- it tied him down to his district and he had to raise and spend money for the defense. However, he lost to a deep-pocketed candidate with the support of both US Senators.
The second recall was against Michigan Speaker Andy Dillon in 2008. Dillon was targeted by anti-Tax groups. The recall involved numerous court battles, questions over whether the backers actually collected enough signatures, and a debate over the date. In the end, the recall was set for Election Day, which, as I've mentioned before, is a great benefit for elected official. Dillon was actually on the ballot twice that day, once for the recall and once for the reelection. Dillon survived the vote, garnering 64%, and kept his Speakership.
Hard to say that there was any real impact of the Dillon recall. Two years later, Dillon ran for the Democratic nomination for Governor, which he lost. The recall did not seem to have any impact on the primary campaign, and as an issue, taxes were no less or more important because of the recall.
Pearce already appears to be a lightening rod for criticism. The recall backers are certainly hoping that targeting Pearce will serve as a warning for others. On the other hand, if Pearce scores a strong victory, it could embolden his supporters and serve as an argument in favor of his core positions.