PHOENIX — Lost in the uproar over Arizona's immigration crackdown is another groundbreaking law that took effect this week. Anyone over 21 now can carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
"We sure are on a roll," said Sen. Russell Pearce, sponsor of both bills. "It's a great time for conservative Republicans in Arizona. We're leading the nation."
From opting out of abortion coverage under exchanges in the new federal health care law to banning "ethnic" studies in schools to tough illegal immigration measures and relaxed gun regulations, the Grand Canyon State has become a hotbed for conservative policy.
The victories are part circumstance — after six years, the GOP-dominated Legislature has an ally in the governor's office — but also the spoils of a decade-long effort to purge moderate Republicans.
That practice has only now begun to play out in other states including Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist was forced to quit the GOP in order to keep alive his hopes at winning the U.S. Senate race. Crist has not always been a willing partner with the GOP-controlled Legislature, and either of the Republicans seeking to replace him, Rick Scott and Bill McCollum, would elevate the conservative platform.
The success in Arizona has been widespread, generating acclaim but also controversy.
"There's a remarkable story how ideas that were once thought to be utterly outrageous have become mainstream thinking," said David Berman, senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. "A right-wing group has taken over the place. And the ideas have broader appeal than even they expected."
A vast majority of Arizonans support the immigration law, as do most Americans. At least 20 other states are crafting their own version, and Pearce has gotten invites to talk to legislators across the country, including Florida. (He declined due to a busy schedule.)
"Controversial to whom?" asked Pearce, bewildered by the negative attention that peaked with a protest in downtown Phoenix on Thursday when the immigration law went into effect. A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the most controversial parts as a court challenge continues, but that did not stop the demonstration.
"Yes we Klan," read one sign. "The racial profiling state." Dozens were arrested as TV news cameras looked on.
"We're being perceived as a hostile place," said Diana Behrens, 53, a Republican eating lunch across the street. She disagrees — "Arizona has always been a live and let live place" — but blames the law for the stereotype.
This sun-scorched land of cactus and rolling brown mountains has always been solidly Republican. The GOP has controlled the state House since 1966; the last time Democrats held the Senate was 1990.
Arizona's Old West sensibility has long tolerated guns; residents were able to wear one in plain view. But conservatives have aimed for less regulation. The law that went into effect Thursday makes Arizona only the third state and the largest to do away with concealed weapons permits.
That added to another recent law that allows people who do have permits to bring their guns into bars and restaurants, if the establishment does not expressly prohibit them.
The state is the busiest entry point for illegal immigrants and lawmakers have responded in kind. Violence and drug trade along the border have generated widespread public support for a crackdown.
A measure passed a few years ago gives the state authority to revoke the business license of any employer who knowingly hired an illegal immigrant.
This year, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law legislation that bans ethnic studies in schools, a move triggered after a speaker told students in Tucson that Republicans "hate" Latinos.
Backers of the immigration legislation point to public support and several voter-approved referendums, including one in 2004 requiring anyone wanting to vote to show proof of citizenship.
Other initiatives have put the state on the fringe. The House this year passed a bill that would require any presidential candidate on the state ballot to provide a birth certificate proving he or she was born in the United States — a reference to a widely debunked myth that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
Pearce plans to introduce legislation that would deny U.S. citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants.
"We actually have our own section on the Daily Show website," said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. "Jon Stewart calls us the meth lab of democracy."
Republicans hold a distinct advantage in voter registration (about 110,000 more than Democrats), but there are plenty of independents.
"It's disappointing," Heredia said. "People come to Arizona from all over the world for our natural beauty. There are a lot more people than are reflected in our Legislature. But right now we're just locked into a race to the right."
The starting line was laid 10 years ago when conservatives began engaging in primary elections, upset with moderate Republicans who were siding with Democrats.
Then came a fortuitous change in governors. In six years in office, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed a record number of bills. Among her vetoes: a precursor to the immigration bill causing uproar today. In 2009, she became Homeland Security secretary under President Obama. Brewer replaced her as governor.
The Legislature moved quickly to assert its power, becoming the first state to push a voter referendum that says no citizen should be compelled to participate in a health care system. The pre-emptive strike against the federal health care law goes before voters in November.
Other states have followed, though Florida's effort was thrown off the ballot this week when a judge deemed the wording misleading.
"The outlier here is not the Arizona state Legislature," said House Speaker Kirk Adams, who introduced Sen. John McCain at a campaign event in Mesa on Friday morning. McCain, as it happens, is facing a primary challenge from the right, after being cast by some Republicans here as too moderate.
"The outlier," Adams continued, "is the (people) that are choosing not to enforce immigration law or are trying to infringe upon Second Amendment rights."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]