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In 2010, Arizona enacted an immigration law so stringent that the U.S. Supreme Court was forced to intervene. Four years later, the governor had to veto a nearly successful effort to allow businesses to deny service to, among others, LGBT people. After that measure failed, the Arizona House of Representatives last month passed a bill meant to increase scrutiny of abortion clinics.

These bills are coming from lawmakers who’ve assembled the most conservative state legislature in the country. That’s according to Princeton University’s Nolan McCarty and University of Chicago’s Boris Shor, who tracked the ideology of state legislatures over the past 20 years and found that Arizona’s lawmakers are more conservative than those in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. Modern, tea-party Republicanism has found no more accommodating home than the Arizona statehouse.

But the legislature’s conservatism is out of step with the people it governs. Voters in Arizona are more in favor of abortion and gay rights than the nation as a whole, and only a few points more conservative on illegal immigration.1

The disconnect stems from the state’s long history of Republican voting habits and quirks in its electoral system, which together have led to an influx of legislators far more extreme than the voters who elected them.

Arizona is mostly Republican and has been for generations. Since 1952, no other state has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate fewer times. In 2012 exit polls, only Kansas showed a higher proportion of Republicans to Democrats when people were asked about their party identification.

But Republicanism is changing, and as the GOP has gotten more conservative, Arizona Republican voters have stayed a bit more moderate. According to exit polls taken during the 2012 presidential primary, Arizona GOP voters were no more likely to say they were very conservative or a member of the tea party than those in the average state. We’ve seen proof of that when they vote for president. In February 2012, Republican voters in Arizona sided overwhelmingly with the most moderate candidate remaining in the primary race: Mitt Romney. He crushed his conservative rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum by nearly 20 points.

Given all that, why do these hyper-conservative state legislators keep getting elected? Because the Arizona electoral system allows for extreme candidates to compete on an equal playing field with their more moderate competitors.2

Arizona has one of the most advanced clean election laws in the country. As long as a candidate for the state legislature reaches a minimum fundraising level ($1,250), the state essentially funds her campaign.3 (Only Connecticut and Maine have similar laws on public financing for state legislature candidates.) That allows candidates to stay viable even if they don’t have connections to the state party or local business leaders.

This is the perfect formula for the tea party to take on the GOP establishment. Imagine a tea partyer who doesn’t owe anything to established business interests in her district — that’s the kind of state legislator who might support a “religious freedom” law even if businesses are hurt by it. Indeed, a study by Harvard University’s Andrew Hall and a separate study by the University of Denver’s Seth Masket and the University of Illinois’s Michael Miller both show that clean election laws lead to more extreme candidates.

The schism between business and politics was clear in the recent fight over the state’s denial-of-service bill and in the aftermath of the immigration law’s passage. When the former came up for a vote, companies that do a lot of business in Arizona, including American Airlines and Apple, opposed it for fear of losing revenue, as they did when boycotts in response to the immigration law forced the cancellation of various conventions planned in the state. (According to the Los Angeles Times, these cancellations cost “$23 million in lost tax revenue and at least $350 million in direct spending by conventions’ would-be attendees.”)

Local and state politicians were quick to point the finger at the clean election law as the culprit for the immigration bill’s passage. As The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus wrote, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said that the law “allowed individuals … not to have to compete financially since they didn’t have to build constituencies.” J.D. Hayworth, who challenged Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary in 2010, said that an “unintended consequence [of the public finance law] is that it has empowered conservatives.”

Arizona’s term limits also create an environment friendly to extreme candidates. In their paper on clean election laws, Masket and Miller demonstrated that politicians’ ideological extremism tends to fade after a few terms. But in Arizona, where the term limits for state legislators are eight years, this change doesn’t come. They aren’t in office long enough.

Moreover, term-limited legislators are less likely to worry about re-election. According to a study by Dartmouth College’s John Carey and his co-authors, term-limited public officials are more likely to vote in alliance with interest-group concerns or their own gut feelings. That helps to explain why the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian group, is continually pushing conservative legislation that lawmakers continue to heed.

Does this mean that Arizona is destined to produce uber-conservative legislation for eternity? Not necessarily. The rise of the Latino vote in the state may help put more Democrats in the state legislature soon. Arizona Latinos voted three to one to elect President Obama in 2012. There’s also the chance that Democrats could win the governor’s seat this fall, which would give them veto power over any conservative legislation. But that’s not looking like a sure thing — both the Cook and Rothenberg Political Report give Republicans the advantage in the race.

Until one of these two events occur, expect the status quo. With voters who love voting Republican, Republicans who love being super-Republican, and an electoral system that helps uber-conservatives, Arizona is likely to continue producing legislation that seems disconnected from the rest of the country, and its own people. Wild West, indeed.

Footnotes

  1. Most voters in the state did approve of SB 1070, the strict 2010 immigration law. Indeed, most people nationwide did. ^
  2. This, of course, applies to both parties. ^
  3. This is the minimum fundraising level for 2014. Candidates in the last election cycle needed 220 contributions at a minimum of $5 each, or $1,100. ^

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