Mecham recall throws Arizona Republicans into tailspin

October 10, 1987

Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Controversy over Gov. Evan Mecham and the recall movement against him have thrown Arizona’s Republican party into a tailspin just as it appeared to have reached its major goals, party members say.

In 1985, GOP voter registration finally overtook the Democrats in a state long known as a conservative stronghold. Last year, Arizonans elected their first Republican governor in 12 years.

Now the Republican registration edge is slipping, and party loyalists are talking seriously about the chances of losing not only the governorship to the Democrats but GOP majorities in the state House or Senate.

“We’re not used to infighting. It hurts us,” said state Rep. Larry Hawke, one of the GOP moderates who has called on Mecham to resign if enough petition signatures are gathered to force him to face a recall election.

Most officials now believe the recall movement, which began even before the freshman governor took office in January, will gather enough signatures by Nov. 3 to force an election in 1988.

The outspoken Mecham has provoked widespread criticism since he rescinded a state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in January and later appointed friends that many considered unqualified to state jobs.

The last straw for many Republicans came Sept. 29 when it was disclosed that the Mecham Finance Committee had sent a nationwide fund-raising letter blaming the recall movement on “militant liberals and the homosexual lobby.”

“I think it’s chaos,” said state Sen. Greg Lunn, another of the Republicans calling on Mecham to resign rather than face a recall election. “It certainly is one of the most confusing times for the Republican Party.”

Meanwhile, the publisher of The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette said the newspapers would print editorials over the weekend joining former Sen. Barry Goldwater in calling for Mecham’s resignation.

The editorials “are simply saying that it’s obvious that a lot of the governor’s traditional Republican support is disappearing,” including that from the business community, said publisher Pat Murphy on Friday.

Goldwater, still the state’s leading Republican and a former Mecham supporter, surprised many Thursay when he said, “If the governor was smart, he’d quit and let Rose be governor,” referring to Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat.

However, a poll released Friday showed that Mecham would have a chance of winning a recall election. The poll by the Behavior Research Center showed that the Republican governor could narrowly defeat both Republican and Democratic opponents, particularly if the turnout was low.

This week, while Mecham wraps up a trip to Taiwan and Japan, Republicans are holding several closed-door meetings to find out how much support he still has.

“If we do tend to start killing each other off (over the recall issue), we could lose the majority” in the House or Senate, House Speaker Joe Lane said.

Republicans led the Democrats in party registration for the first time in February 1985, and the GOP was gaining steadily until this summer, when more people started signing up with the Democrats or going independent. Local officials attributed the change to people registering as a result of the recall movement.

Figures released in July by the Secretary of State’s Office showed the Republicans’ margin over the Democrats slipping to 41,105 from 49,061 in April. At a Republican Executive Committee meeting Saturday, many party leaders spoke strongly in Mecham’s favor but issued a stern warning that he needed to change his style and improve his staff.

State GOP Chairman Burton Kruglick, who had recently backed off on his support of Mecham, said that if Republicans “go out and tell the story of the accomplishments of this government, in spite of the dumb things that have been done and the dumb things that have been said, we will be able to convince the people of this state that we are moving in a positive direction.”

However, almost nobody is predicting a resignation by Mecham, who won the governorship on his fifth try and who Goldwater described as “a very stubborn man.”