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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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