New Mexico: Wilson, Pearce Defeat Challengers

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Republican Rep. Heather Wilson declared victory Tuesday against second-time challenger Richard Romero in the bitterly contested 1st District race — one that garnered national attention from both parties.

Fellow U.S. House incumbents Tom Udall in the north and Steve Pearce in the south were headed back to Capitol Hill after securing victories.

Election returns showed Wilson leading with 54 percent to Romero's 46 percent with 77 percent of the vote in Tuesday night.

However, the Romero camp was not ready to concede a thing with precincts still out and the absentee vote uncounted by 11 p.m. Tuesday.

"Political pundits and pollsters don't decide elections; people do," Romero spokeswoman Kena Hudson said. "And this year we're counting all the votes."

In 2002, Romero had held a narrow lead until Bernalillo County absentee ballots were processed and divided more than 2-to-1 in favor of Wilson. She went on to beat Romero by her widest margin of victory — 55 percent to his 45 percent.

Democrats viewed the race as a chance to pick up a seat in their long-shot attempt to gain 12 seats for control of the House, and Republicans fought hard to defend Wilson.

"You have to work hard in this district," Wilson said Tuesday night. "It's only 34 percent Republican, and there are so many states that have gerrymandered districts. This is one of the ones numerically that should be the most competitive for a Democrat.

"I think we've show again and again now that I work hard for New Mexico," she said.

Emblematic of the campaign's aggressively competitive tenor was the controversy over a Romero campaign ad that accused Wilson of doing a favor for terrorists and voting with Republicans against requiring cargo inspections on passenger airplanes.

The ad, and subsequent remarks by Romero on a radio talk show, drew heavy criticism from Wilson and her allies. Wilson said she voted against the measure because experts have said it would not improve safety and the plan itself wasn't feasible.

The contest came also with a high price tag. By mid-October, Wilson had spent more than $2.7 million and Romero more than $1.6 million, according to Federal Elections Commission data reported by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The district's party registration favors Democrats 47 percent to the GOP's 34 percent while 16 percent don't identify a party affiliation. However, history favored Wilson as a Republican.

She first won a 1998 special election following the death of Republican Steve Schiff, who was elected to five terms. Before Schiff, Republican Manuel Lujan Jr. spent 20 years in the seat.

History also favored Republican Steve Pearce in southern New Mexico's 3rd District.

There, voters have elected Republicans to Congress for the last 24 years, although there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district.

Pearce, who was elected to his second term, said the conservatism of the district "lines up well with the conservative values I represent."

Pearce beat Democrat Gary King, a state legislator for 12 years whose father, Bruce King, was the longest serving governor in state history.

"We worked it very hard and every campaign has got to be an all-out effort," he said.

Unlike the Wilson-Romero race, the 2nd District went from a highly targeted race by the Democratic and Republican national congressional committees in 2002 to one that virtually dropped off the national political radar.

Results showed Pearce with 61 percent to King's 39 percent with 85 percent of the vote in.

The incumbent congressman said bad weather in the eastern part of his district Monday night had created some concern about turnout Tuesday. But those concerns did not seem to materialize as early results poured in.

Udall won his fourth term in the northern 3rd District against Republican challenger Gregory Tucker, who has served as district attorney in San Juan County.

"I'm humbled and elated about going back to Washington again to represent the people of the 3rd Congressional District," Udall said.

Results in the 3rd District showed Udall with 66 percent to Tucker's 34 percent, with 86 percent of the vote in.

Both Pearce and Udall said education and job growth will be priority issues for them in the coming two years.