Originally Published: November 7, 2012 10:11 p.m.
PHOENIX - Yavapai County's rare leadership status in the Arizona Legislature has been cut in half.
Majority Republicans in the Legislature decided Wednesday to keep Andy Tobin as House speaker but replace Senate President Steve Pierce with current Majority Leader Andy Biggs.
Both Pierce and Biggs are conservatives, but Biggs is regarded as more of a hardliner.
Other new leaders selected during separate House and Senate caucuses included John McComish as Senate majority leader and Adam Driggs as Senate majority whip. In the House, David Gowan will be majority leader and Rick Gray will be majority leader.
The Republicans held traditional closed-door caucuses to reorganize following Tuesday's general election, which saw the GOP retain control of both legislative chambers but lose seats to Democrats.
The selection of top legislative leaders is important because those leaders assign bills to committees, pick committee chairmen and schedule legislation for floor action. That means the leaders can influence what bills are approved or never see the light of day.
While Pierce lost to Biggs, Tobin fended off a challenge from Steve Smith, a state senator who won a House seat Tuesday.
"I am humbled and honored by the faith and trust my colleagues have shown in my leadership of the House," Tobin said. "I am also grateful for the mandate the people of Arizona have given to the Republican-led majority. I am looking forward to maintaining the strength and cohesion of our caucus as we continue to lead Arizona down the path to economic recovery and prosperity."
Tobin was sad to hear that Pierce lost the Senate presidency. Both represent the Prescott region and have known each other for two decades.
"He did a good job and I was very proud of him," Tobin said of Pierce. "That's a huge loss for Yavapai County, too."
Biggs narrowly lost a midterm contest for the Senate presidency to Pierce a year ago. That vote occurred after then-President Russell Pearce lost a recall election and had to be replaced in the chamber's top leadership post.
Republican Party activists in a handful of counties had urged rank-and-file GOP lawmakers to replace Pierce and Tobin with Biggs and Smith, respectively.
The activists have criticized the Legislature's failure to pass measures targeting public employee unions and other concerns of conservatives.
"It now falls upon our newly elected officials to stand with the party's grassroots, stand firm on our platform and principles and deliver the legislative leadership change they desire," Pinal County Chairman Stephen Kohut said.
Democrats won four additional Senate seats, narrowing the GOP's edge to 17-13. Republicans had picked up four Senate seats in 2010, providing them with a 21-9 supermajority that made it relatively easy to pass abortion restrictions and other legislation favored by conservatives.
Several races remained to be decided in the House, but Democrats gained at least three additional seats, which is enough to deprive Republicans of their two-thirds majority. Republicans entered the election with a 40-19 edge.
Republicans had expected to lose seats in the Legislature as a result of redistricting. That once-a-decade process uses constitutionally mandated criteria that include fostering competition between the two major parties.
"Overall not a bad night for the Democrats - kind of what we expected year ago when we saw these district lines," said Mike Gardner, a Republican lobbyist and former legislator.
Gardner said tea party conservatives will still dominate the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate. "But there's a working group of moderates that can come together and block anything," he added.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, said it's likely that Republicans will now work with Democrats. With the GOP's current supermajority, "Democrats are pretty much sitting on the sidelines watching. I think that's going to change," she said.
Sen. John McComish, a Phoenix Republican who fended off a union-backed challenge by Democrat Janie Hydrick, said Republicans' 17-13 Senate majority is "really back to more business as usual."
With the smaller GOP majority, "I think there will be a little bit more working across the aisle ... I think there will be fewer bills passed and more moderation," he added.
In other key Senate races, Democratic former Rep. David Bradley beat Republican Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, while Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, beat Sen. Jerry Lewis, R-Mesa. Lewis beat Pearce in the 2011 recall election.
Pierce was not available for comment at press time.
Courier reporter Joanna Dodder contributed to this story.