Sunday, November 6, 2011

What to expect when you're expecting a recall -- Arizona Senate Regicide edition

On Tuesday, controversial Arizona Senate Majority Leader Russell Pearce will be facing a recall vote, only the third time a state legislative leader has had to face a recall. Unlike Wisconsin and Michigan, the recall was not launched by a specific interest group, but it is frequently tied to a specific interest group issue -- immigration. 

After numerous twists and turns, including an Arizona Supreme Court ruling and the presence of a "sham" candidate, Pearce will face off against Republican Jerry Lewis. The latest polls show a super close race. This article has some stats on the district, 37% Republican, 26% Democrat, explaining why no Democrat is challenging Pearce.

Pearce's recall will be held on the same day as the recall of Michigan State Rep. Paul Scott, making them the 10th and 11th state legislator in the US to face a recall this year. (Wisconsin had the other 9). How unprecedented is this? From the 1908 (when Oregon adopted the recall for state officials) till 2010, only 20 state legislators faced a recall vote. Is Voter Anger to blame or is it something else? What do all these recall mean?

Let's look at the big talking points. Apologies if you've seen some of this material before in my earlier primers.

"You have selected Regicide"
Pearce is the third state legislative leader to face a recall. The first was California President Pro Tempore David Roberti in 1994. The second was Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon in 2008. Both of men triumphed. See the details here.

There was one other recall of a legislative leader, though the circumstances were so bizarre that it has to be separated out. Without going into too much details about the California recall wars of 1995, Republican Doris Allen backed the Democrats in a closely divided Assembly that had already seen two recall votes. Allen was elected Speaker of the Assembly and served for a little over 3 months, but she stepped down before her recall. She lost her recall race.

Pearce is the first recall of a state official in Arizona history. Arizona actually has a great history with the recall. The state's original constitution provided for the recall of judges. William Howard Taft vetoed the constitution, resulting in heavy criticism from Teddy Roosevelt and a big campaign issue in the 1912 election. Additionally, Governor Evan Mecham was all set to face a recall in 1988, but was impeached and convicted before the recall took place.

The state has noteworthy local recalls, including the recall of the "worst boss in America."

Running Up the Score:
Though there were a number of nail bitters in Wisconsin, historically blowout victories are the norm in recall races. There is certainly a logic to the blowout nature -- the official is either really hated, or the interest group that pushed the recall is viewed as going overboard. Pearce's recall looks to be a barnburner -- here's a couple of examples of those.

Election Day vs. Special Election:
Historically, turnout is low for recalls that are held as special elections. This a real advantage to this for recall proponents -- going back to our 20 legislative recalls, 18 were probably held as special elections. 13 of those were successful.

On closely followed recalls, turnout is higher.  Wisconsin, like the Gray Davis recall before, saw big turnout. Pearce's recall has been closely followed, so we will probably see good numbers. Leading us to....

Get up, stand up:
The ground game is critical to recalls -- they are frequently decided by turnout. The advantage seems to be with the recall proponents -- they are motivated and are going to the polls. But this is a regularly scheduled election day (though in an off-year election). This advantage to recall proponents is lost -- people don't necessarily need to be told to show up. In 2008, both state legislative recalls were held on election days. Both candidates won handily.

Burned rate:
Historically, the big hurdle to the recall is getting on the ballot. Once it's there, elected officials are frequently kicked out of office. Of the 20 state legislators to face a recall before this year, 13 were kicked out. However, the numbers are improving for elected officials in recent years. 2008 saw two survivors. And Wisconsin hit barely above the Mendoza line with an anemic 2 for 9. So we now stand at 15-29.

On the state-wide level, the recall has been rare but successful. Two Governors have faced a recall (California's Gray Davis in 2003, North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921), both were removed. In 1921, the North Dakota Attorney General and Commissioner of Agriculture were also removed with a recall.

The Interest Group Defense:
It is not as clear cut as in other states, but the Pearce's recall has been viewed as being initiated by a specific interest group. Does that help or hurt the recall's chances? History suggests that the best defense is blaming a specific interest group, rather than a political party. See here for a lot more on the subject, including why interest groups make a great villain.

The lack of a special election certainly held down costs (and criticism) of the recall.However, it also deprived Pearce of an issue that almost everyone facing a recall uses -- that the opponents are wasting taxpayer funds on a frivolous election. 

There is a second issue with costs. Due to a strange rule in Arizona, Pearce is actually able to demand reimbursement for his election costs. No one is sure how that will work, but more on that here.

Campaign Finance:
Pearce is not allowed to accept corporate donations. Very different rules than Wisconsin. While money has poured in, it is nowhere near as much money as in Wisconsin. Most of the campaign fundraising was hidden from view until days before the election.

Spoiler Alert!
The recall originally featured three candidates, Pearce, Lewis and Olivia Cortes. Cortes was widely believed to be a spoiler -- a candidate run by Pearce to siphon anti-Pearce votes away from Lewis. The court originally ruled that she would stay on the ballot, but then Cortes dropped out, but her name stayed on the ballot. We'll see if there's any impact. Here's a little bit on recalls and sham candidates.

Will there be calls for recall reform? Of course there will be. Will the recall disappear into the ether after this brief burst? Tune in and we'll see.

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