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Wilson-Madrid Congressional Race Stays Too Close to Call

UPDATED RESULTS (Nov. 17, 2006)

By Jeff Jones
Journal Politics Writer
    New Mexico's nationally watched battle between 1st Congressional District Republican Rep. Heather Wilson and Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid remained razor-close early today.
    Madrid had led throughout the count Tuesday night as Democrats surged to victories in House seats across the country. Wilson moved into the lead for the first time just after midnight as Torrance County precincts boosted her to a 310-vote margin out of more than 192,000 votes tallied.
    Wilson's lead grew to 1,171 with 99 percent of the vote counted at 1 a.m.
    The Bernalillo County clerk was hand-counting about 4,000 ballots from the county after midnight. Another 2,300 absentee ballots turned in at polling places on Tuesday also were still to be counted, County Clerk Mary Herrera said.
    The candidates came up about even in early and absentee voting. Madrid had the edge in early votes cast; Wilson led in absentees.
    Madrid's early lead in the vote tally Tuesday night was marred by controversy: Two large Albuquerque precincts ran out of ballots, some voters were turned away, and others left in anger before the supply was replenished.
    "They disenfranchised voters and turned them away, and that was wrong," Wilson told the Journal.
Staying positive
    Wilson was more upbeat as she spoke to supporters shortly after midnight at the Marriott Pyramid North, saying, "This race is close, but I expect to win.
    "We'll celebrate with orange juice for breakfast," she said.
    Wilson said she could account for most of the remaining votes not yet counted, and was confident she would prevail. She moved ahead in the tally shortly thereafter.
    Madrid kept a low profile through most of the Democrats' election-night festivities at the Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town. But she emerged just after 11:30 p.m. to give a brief pep talk to supporters.
    "We are very cautiously optimistic. We have not been behind once tonight, but we have to wait a little bit longer," she told the cheering crowd. "I am going to stay here— and it's worth waiting for— until we can declare victory."
    New Mexico races for the U.S. Senate and two other House seats weren't nearly as riveting. Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Republican 2nd District Rep. Steve Pearce and Democratic 3rd District Rep. Tom Udall all were declared winners early.
    With the unpopular war in Iraq grinding toward the four-year mark and voters giving President Bush low approval ratings, Wilson and dozens of other Republican House incumbents around the country faced tough re-election battles Tuesday.
    New Mexico's 1st Congressional District seat was considered a key prize in Democrats' national quest to take control of the House— which they claimed in any case.
    Even Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., New Mexico's senior senator, who was not up for re-election Tuesday, acknowledged the troubles many fellow GOP members faced.
    Domenici called national Democratic gains the result of "huge headwinds" of dissatisfaction with Iraq and the Bush administration.
    A Madrid victory would make political history in New Mexico. No Democrat has won the 1st District since it was established in 1968, and neither of the two Republicans who held the seat before Wilson— Manuel Lujan Jr. and Steve Schiff— was voted out of office. Lujan retired, and Schiff died of cancer.
    Madrid throughout her campaign criticized Wilson for her support of the Iraq war and Bush. Wilson highlighted her independence while questioning Madrid's ethics and competence.
    The final Journal Poll on the 1st District contest showed Madrid with a 49 percent to 45 percent edge— though the Madrid lead fell within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
    Gov. Bill Richardson, who cruised to victory Tuesday over Republican challenger John Dendahl, said he was hoping his lopsided win would provide a boost to other Democrats on the ballot— including Madrid.
    "My hope is that my strong (showing) can help other Democratic candidates from Patricia Madrid down the line to judicial (candidates) and others running in legislative races," he said. "We'll see if that happens."
    Bingaman, who grew up in Silver City, rode a wave of popularity into his fifth six-year term in the Senate: In a late-August Journal Poll, 69 percent of those surveyed gave him a thumbs-up for his job performance.
    His Republican challenger, political newcomer and Farmington urologist Allen McCulloch, won a hard-fought primary victory to earn the right to challenge Bingaman. But the primary dust-up left McCulloch financially strapped, and he was unable to mount a broad advertising campaign to boost his name recognition.
Benefiting Bingaman
    Bingaman said he believes he benefited from the overall political mood of the nation.
    "People generally believe the country needs to move in a different direction. And they also believe Democrats are best-positioned to move us in that direction," Bingaman said.
    In southern New Mexico's 2nd Congressional District, Pearce, a former Hobbs oil-service business owner, defeated political newcomer Albert Kissling of Las Cruces to earn a third term in Washington.
    Republicans have held the seat in the conservative-leaning district for 26 years.
    "It's exciting," Pearce said after the race was called in his favor. "We've been doing good work, we've built a great staff. They have a heart for service, they're just ready to go."
    Kissling, a retired minister with far less in his campaign war chest, said he had no regrets and hinted that his first trip into New Mexico politics won't be his last.
    "It's been a great adventure," he said. "We're going for 2008."
    In northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, Udall defeated Republican political newcomer Ron Dolin to secure his fifth consecutive two-year term.
    "I've got a great district. I love my constituents. I'm honored and privileged to serve them again in the 110th Congress," a jubilant Udall said early Tuesday evening.
    Dolin, an energetic Los Alamos National Laboratory homeland security expert, ran a shoestring campaign that at one point was fueled by a modest insurance check from a minor car accident. However, he took the race seriously and logged many miles for campaign appearances.
    His business cards featured a small picture of Don Quixote, broken lance and all.

E-MAIL writer Jeff Jones