Senate Republicans are moving to keep Democrats from doing to them what they did to Russell Pearce.

Legislation set for debate today at the Senate Judiciary Committee would scrap the rules mandating that recall elections be conducted as nonpartisan contests. Instead, anyone who wants to replace a sitting official would first have to survive a partisan primary.

The change is crucial.

When foes of Pearce, the former Senate president, got enough signatures last year to force a recall, his fate was decided in a single special election.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said that allowed the Democrats in the Mesa legislative district to join with independents and some Republicans unhappy with Pearce to unite behind challenger Jerry Lewis, whom they saw as more moderate on issues like illegal immigration.

He, like Pearce, is a registered Republican. But Smith contends if Lewis had to first survive a GOP primary, where Democrats could not vote, Pearce would have won.

That still would leave a general election. But given the political makeup of the district - Republicans hold a two-to-one voter-registration edge - Pearce likely would have beaten anyone the Democrats put up and been allowed to complete the remainder of his term.

Smith said the Pearce recall, the first such election in the state's history, helped point up the problem.

"We've seen the playbook: Put up somebody with the same (political) letter next to the name . . . for the sake of knocking off the other person," he said.

But Smith said this should not be seen as a bid by Republicans to protect their seats.

"The same thing can happen to the other side, too," he said.

For example, he said, Republicans who want to oust a sitting Democrat launch a recall and, if they get the necessary signatures, put up someone more conservative.

"Then, simply, you could garner all your Republican votes and all your independent votes and vote for that person," Smith explained, ousting the person who a majority of Democrats in a Democratic district showed they wanted at the last primary. Smith said that would not be fair either, which is why he wants the change.

"It keeps the other party out of the recall unless there's a full-blown general (election)," he said.

Nothing in his measure, SB 1449, would keep a public official from being recalled in the first place and having to face an election.

The requirements to force an election remain the same: Gather the signatures of at least 25 percent of those who voted for all candidates for the same office in the most recent election.

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