Russell Pearce ousted in historic recall election

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Voters have ousted state Sen. Russell Pearce in an unprecedented recall election, a first for an Arizona legislator.

With a majority of the precincts reporting, the top vote-getter, Republican Jerry Lewis, steps into the District 18 legislative seat for the second year of a two-year term.

Lewis claimed victory at 9 p.m.  "Our opponent was the most powerful politician in Arizona and one who had deep-pocketed and powerful interests from outside our district backing him, as well as the entire muscle from our state Republican Party," Lewis said.

Lewis, 54, a charter school executive, has been a resident of Mesa for nearly 30 years.  His victory now forces the Senate's majority Republicans to pick a new leader for the chamber.

People on both sides of the debate said that removing Pearce would send a powerful message to the Legislature that uncompromising stances on immigration and other issues will not be tolerated by voters.

Pearce, a 64-year-old conservative Republican from Mesa, outspent his challenger by more than a 3-to-1 ratio and painted the recall advocates as liberal outsiders who targeted him because of his immigration stance.

The recall election was forced by a petition drive. Pearce had support from Gov. Jan Brewer and dozens of other elected Republican officeholders, but he was dogged by disclosures that he accepted numerous free trips from the Fiesta Bowl to out-of-state college football trips. He said he took the trips at the bowl's request to help support its economic role in the state.

A third name also was on the recall ballots, but Olivia Cortes withdrew from the race, so ballots cast for her won't count. She had faced a legal challenge to her candidacy that produced court testimony indicating Tea Party activists orchestrated her candidacy to dilute the anti-Pearce vote. 

Copyright 2011 KPHO. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.