PHOENIX—Russell Pearce notices me noticing the license plate on his truck: ARZ1070. It’s three years to the day since the former state senator presided over the passage of the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act—SB 1070—the law that required noncitizens to carry their registration at all times and empowered police to check the citizenship status of anyone they made “lawful contact” with.
“You’d think it’s a specialty plate,” says Pearce, as we walk into the suburban Denny’s where he likes to meet with Republican legislators. “I used to be the director of motor vehicles. We passed the bill, and I called up and said, ‘I’ll pay for a plate that says SB 1070 if I need to, but do you have one ready to go?’ They call me back, and they say: ‘You won’t believe this, but ARZ1070 is on top of the pile about to go out. I can pull it for you.’ I say, ‘Please!’ ”
Looking back, the passage of SB 1070 was the peak of Pearce’s career. Everything else, like the successful 2004 voter ID ballot initiative, led up to SB 1070; everything since has been a letdown. In November 2011, Pearce became the first Arizona senator to lose a recall election. In 2012, he tried and failed to win a new seat. He still works with Republicans—he’ll strategize with them later at a meeting of the state “liberty caucus”—but he “probably won’t run again.”
Immigration reformers won’t miss him. In Arizona, they describe Pearce’s loss as the moment “the fever” broke.
“He was one that every reporter would go to,” says U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake. “And they usually didn’t have to, because he’d usually be in front of a microphone somewhere. There were a lot of people who listened to him on this. Not having him at the tip of newscasts, criticizing, or organizing events and press conferences—it just makes for a different environment.”
A year after the recall, when he was making his first run for the U.S. Senate, Flake nearly lost. Republicans lost supermajorities in the Arizona legislature (they still run both houses), and Democrats won five of the state’s nine redistricted U.S. House seats.
“Almost everyone believed that Romney was not only going to win, but win big, up until the day of the election,” says Clint Bolick, the libertarian attorney who now directs litigation at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix and who co-authored Jeb Bush’s new book about immigration reform. “My wife and other Tea Party types, they were telling me: ‘You’ve got to stop reading the New York Times. They’re going to be wrong.’ Losing forced people into some serious soul-searching. I know some Tea Party folks are rethinking the issue now, and that conversation simply never happened before.”
Pearce knows all about that. “In 2007, the last time they had a bill in Congress, you had a backstop,” he says, working his way through his Grand Slam breakfast. “I think there’ll be a mass exodus from the Republican Party. It may be the impetus that creates a third party. And I may lead that drive to create an American Independent Party.”
Who would join him? Many of the activists who made their names in the roughest stretch of the immigration wars, from the failure of the 2006 reform bill in Congress to the passage of SB 1070, have disappeared from the scene. Michelle Dallacroce, whose work with Mothers Against Illegal Aliens made her a cable news regular for years, basically packed it up in 2008. Chris Simcox, who led the Minuteman Project to prominence from a newspaper office in Tombstone, Ariz., grew absorbed in a brutal legal battle against his wife at the same time three Minutemen went on trial for a robbery that devolved into a triple murder.
The media’s paying less attention now, and the hosts who could be counted on to shower the anti-immigration crowd with coverage have either lost their perches (Lou Dobbs) or moved on (Bill O’Reilly). Talk radio made celebrities out of the restrictionists in the 1990s and 2000s; the Minuteman Project’s Jim Gilchrist famously first heard his calling when he caught Simcox being interviewed by a right-wing California talker. But driving around the Phoenix suburbs, the conservative talk radio that comes in clearest is Salem Radio’s lineup—hosts like Michael Medved and Hugh Hewitt, who want Republicans to sign on to reform and win some elections.