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Updated Jun 14, 2013 - 4:21 pm

Arizona conservatives regroup after big loss

PHOENIX — There was a time when conservative Republicans could get
whatever they wanted through the Arizona Legislature.

Not anymore.

The 2013 legislative session that ended early Friday represented a historic
power shift in Arizona after a handful of moderate Republicans in the House and
Senate joined with Democrats to pass a plan championed by GOP Gov. Jan Brewer
that expanded Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The so-called Brewer caucus, as they became known, also united to overcome the
far-right conservatives who run the Legislature on a smattering of other issues.
Together, they passed new taxes to fund schools and defeated an anti-abortion
bill, much to the annoyance of Republican leaders who were used to getting their
way.

“The moderate wing tried to work within their party, and when that didn’t work
they joined up with us,” said Democratic Rep. Martin Quezada of Phoenix. “This
is definitely a big change.”

To be sure, Republicans still reign in Arizona. They maintain a 36-24 advantage
in the House, and a 17-13 lead in the Senate. But the divisive session could
point to a growing moderate fraction within the party that might make passing
far-right priorities harder in the future.

“The Republican party is kind of in the middle of a civil war,” said DJ
Quinlan, executive director of the Arizona Democrats. “You see Democrats
starting to exert their influence in the state.”

Conservatives leaders said they expect to emerge victorious in the next
session, when the Medicaid debate won’t overshadow every deal and vote.

“We are disappointed,” said Aaron Baer, spokesman for the influential Center
for Arizona Policy, which backed the anti-abortion bill that would have limited
funding for abortion clinics and allowed for unannounced inspections.

“Obviously it’s sad that we are going to have to go another year without
having something like unannounced inspections,” Baer said. “We still feel
really good about the direction Arizona is going in.”

Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, said it will be difficult to work with the
Republicans who turned against the party.

“The precedent is there,” Boyer said. “I hope to God next year that this
doesn’t happen again.”

At one point, Democrats and a few moderate Republicans worked with Brewer to
organize a surprise special session focused on the budget and Medicaid plan with
no notice to other GOP leaders. Then they refused to answer questions about
their budget during floor debate, drawing accusations of betrayal from fellow
party members.

“It came out of nowhere. I considered a few of them good friends, and that was
the hardest part for me,” Boyer said. “Honestly, I don’t trust them right now.
I don’t.”

The waning influence of conservatives is a new phenomenon. For years, Arizona’s
Legislature gained national attention for leading the way on far-right
priorities, including the passage of its tough anti-illegal immigration law in
2010. Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Brewer would
back the Medicaid expansion or have the votes to get it passed, observers said.

“In 2011, the tea party element of the Republican party was essentially
passing anything they wanted,” Quinlan said. “They spent a lot of time on
these really extreme bills.”

That’s not to say Democrats are poised to take over anytime soon. While the
growing Latino population and voting trends in the West suggest Arizona could
soon become a more competitive state, Democrats still fell short of getting some
of their priorities through the Legislature this session, including bills to
repeal the death penalty, allow same-sex marriage and let immigrants here
illegally get driver’s licenses. They also fought an election overhaul that will
make it harder for voters to obtain and return mail ballots, but lost after
Republicans pressured their more moderate members to fall in line.

“Obviously, they still have a lot of power and influence,” Quezada said. “At
the end of the day, we are going to lose to them on a lot of issues.”

It’s unclear how the lingering acrimony between Republican legislators will
play out when lawmakers return for a new session in January or when voters weigh
in during the next legislative election in 2014.

Some GOP leaders hope primary voters angry over the Medicaid expansion will
turn out in strong numbers to boot out the moderates in 2014.

“This is a short-lived power shift,” said Republican Rep. John Kavanagh of
Fountain Hills, who voted against the Medicaid expansion. “A lot of the
coalition members are having second thoughts about what they did because they
are experiencing the backlash. It’s going to be a defining issue for a lot of
political careers.”

Kavanagh said Republicans will have to support the abortion bill in 2014 if
they want to stay in office.

“It’s an election year, and these Republicans don’t want to be campaigning as
pro-choice candidates,” he said.

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