Even before the first vote has been cast in a historic recall election, state Senate President Russell Pearce has won a landslide of powerful political endorsements.
The Mesa Republican is supported by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Gov. Jan Brewer, national immigration figure Tom Tancredo and other powerful Republicans.
Opponent Jerry Lewis has none of that.
And that could be his strength.
Lewis’s endorsement roster includes hundreds of names that reads like a street map of Mesa. Supporters include a Stapley, Ellsworth, Farnsworth, Pomeroy, Udall — and other names dating to Mesa’s pioneer days. Many are business owners, educators, school board members and folks known inside west Mesa’s District 18.
It’s a campaign betting Lewis can win voters by appealing to their friends and neighbors.
Longtime pollster Mike O’Neil said Lewis is shaping up to be a credible contender despite a lack of political exposure. Lewis is known locally through the Mormon church, the Boy Scouts and his role at a charter school.
Like Pearce, Lewis is a Mormon and a Republican.
“There’s no question that somebody of Jerry Lewis’s profile is Russell Pearce’s worst nightmare,” O’Neil said.
Endorsements aren’t significant in most elections but they are vital for newcomers like Lewis, O’Neil said. A long list of supporters can give credibility to an unknown.
“This appears to be a guy with truly local, genuine grassroots support,” O’Neil said. “It may be Pearce turns out to be less formidable than people think.”
The most prominent current office-holder who has endorsed Lewis so far is Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley.
Pearce got high-profile backing instantly. Campaign spokesman Ed Phillips listed some of Arizona’s top officeholders as supporters.
“There’s a good reason that the state treasurer supports him, and that’s because (Pearce) believes in fiscal responsibility. He believes in the rule of law, which is why the attorney general supports him,” Phillips said. “It’s very telling that the top educator in Arizona, the superintendant of public instruction, supports him.”
Phillips was referencing Doug Ducey, Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, respectively.
Phillips noted the National Federation of Businesses also threw its weight behind Pearce.
“They came out very early because he’s such a friend of business,” Phillips said.
Endorsements from the educational realm are split.
Pearce’s ties with Horne, the state’s former schools chief, are significant, but Lewis has backing from numerous current and former educators and school board members. They include Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Mike Cowan, former Mesa schools chief Deb Duvall and former school board member Beth Coons.
Lewis supporter John Giles said he’d be surprised if Pearce didn’t have GOP backing because of the political power that goes with being a Senate president. Giles, a former Mesa vice mayor, said the campaign isn’t worried about Pearce’s list of heavyweights.
“The type of endorsements that Jerry is going to get are people who are well known in the community but not necessarily in a political way, and frankly I think that’s going to be to his advantage,” Giles said. “When you see people endorse Jerry, who traditionally haven’t been at the front of political parades, I think that’s a significant thing. His campaign is getting people involved who for whatever reason haven’t been involved in politics in the past.”
Lewis could benefit from Pearce’s endorsements at a time when politicians are so unpopular, longtime Arizona State University pollster Bruce Merrill said. Lewis might win voters with advertisements that show Pearce is touting supporters from outside the district, he said.
“People sometimes resent people from the outside having a voice in a campaign like that,” Merrill said.
Merrill said Lewis needs to emphasize backing from church members, including Don Evans, the longtime local spokesman of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“To have a lot of LDS people, it really sends a message that the Pearce people don’t vote for Pearce just because he is LDS,” Merrill said.
Merrill said Lewis has an uphill battle. Pearce is often defined by his role in the immigration debate, while Lewis will have to work hard to tell voters what he stands for. Lewis has to find the right balance between appealing to the district’s conservative voters while still getting some independents and Democrats to vote for him, Merrill said.
The recall is the only item in the Nov. 8 election and turnout will likely be low, Merrill said.
“It’s going to be a case of literally contacting every one of those people identifying themselves as Pearce people or Lewis people or undecided and delivering those people to the polls,” Merrill said. “That’s going to be the factor that wins the election more than anything else.”
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