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Voters in Mesa, Ariz., ousted the sitting Senate president in a historic recall election Tuesday seen as a referendum on his hard-line immigration stances, including the controversial enforcement-only law known as SB1070, according to unofficial results.
Challenger Jerry Lewis had 53.4 percent of the vote to Sen. Russell Pearce's 45.4 percent with all 16 precincts counted and all early votes tabulated, according to the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.
Pearce conceded the race and campaign manager Chad Willems said the outcome "sets a dangerous precedent."
"What this group did was take a look at the numbers and publicly admitted they wanted to find a white, Mormon, male Republican candidate to run against Russell to split that vote," he said.
Defiant until the end, Pearce made no apologies for his tough immigration laws including SB1070, which sought to turn local police into immigration enforcement officers. The law was partially held unconstitutional in federal court.
But Lewis said the message sent out of Mesa was one of a new beginning.
"The biggest hurdle for Arizona to get over … was just what happened," Lewis said in an interview with The Tribune. "Mr. Pearce was the man. He was SB1070. He was the president of the Senate, the architect of that bill and that was his claim to fame. That message was defeated tonight. I don't think there is anything … Arizona could've done more significant than this."
Opponents of Pearce began circulating a recall petition earlier this year and needed to gather a little more than 7,700 valid signatures. The opponents turned in about 10,000 signatures validated by the Secretary of State.
But supporters like Utah Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman who appeared at a political rally with Pearce in the spring argue the tough-talking lawmaker was taking a strong, principled stand against illegal immigration.
Another dynamic in the race has been the LDS Church, which endorsed comprehensive immigration reform in Utah through the passage of bills including an enforcement-only law and a controversial guest-worker law that is scheduled to take effect in 2013.
Pearce and Lewis both are Republicans and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The LDS Church has stayed out of the race despite keen interest in immigration.
The 14 million-member faith endorsed The Utah Compact, which was signed almost a year ago at the Capitol in Salt Lake City and became the model of immigration reform from a perspective beyond enforcement-only. The Utah Compact was cited by recall supporters as a key spark.
However, Pearce has argued his immigration proposals including seeking the elimination of birthright citizenship are in line with the LDS Church's views.
Willems said, in the event Pearce was recalled, Lewis would assume the seat "immediately."