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Wilson Declares Victory; Madrid Camp Says 1st District Race Not Over Yet

By Jeff Jones, Trip Jennings And Michael Coleman
Journal Staff Writers
    Rep. Heather Wilson claimed victory Thursday night in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District race, but Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid was not ready to concede defeat.
    "Josh and Cait, we won," the beaming Republican incumbent told her two smiling children at a 10 p.m. news conference, two nights after Tuesday's general election.
    Her comments to cheering supporters at her campaign headquarters in Albuquerque came less than an hour after her lead over the state's two-term attorney general grew to 1,607 votes.
    A total of 4,398 ballots in Bernalillo County remained to be counted and that counting was expected to continue into the weekend.
    But with more than 207,000 votes already counted, Wilson said, "Nearly all the ballots are counted, and that margin is decisive."
    Wilson's growing lead made it appear increasingly likely that she would secure a fifth full term and avoid the election-night fallout that swept Republicans out of power nationwide.
    But Democrats immediately rejected her victory claim and said remaining votes still have to be counted.
    "Any attempt to declare victory here would be obscenely premature," said state Democratic Party Chairman John Wertheim.
    Wertheim called Wilson's statements "arrogant" and "silly," and said, "Those (remaining) ballots are like Al Capone's safe and we've got to open up that safe and find out what's in it."
    Madrid spokeswoman Heather Brewer said the Madrid campaign feels "very confident" it will close the gap as the remaining ballots are tallied.
    "Heather Wilson can say whatever she wants to say— but it's the voters of New Mexico who get the final word," Brewer said.
    Journal pollster Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc. in Albuquerque, said Madrid would need to win the outstanding 4,398 votes by better than a 2-to-1 ratio to overtake Wilson's lead— assuming none of the ballots were disqualified by elections workers.
    Many of the remaining ballots are so-called provisional ballots, which are given to people who don't appear on the roster of registered voters in the Election Day precincts where they show up to vote.
    In the 2004 general election, more than half of Bernalillo County's provisional ballots were disqualified for one of several reasons— one of them being that the people who cast them turned out not to be qualified voters.
    Sanderoff said factoring in a similar number of disqualified ballots in the current 1st District battle, Madrid would need to win the remaining votes by better than a 3-to-1 ratio to claim the win.
    The count into Thursday night in the $10-million-fight between Wilson and Madrid had been just shy of a tossup.
    Brewer and Wertheim repeated the Democrats' allegation that Republicans intentionally misdirected Democratic voters to incorrect polling places— a claim the Republicans have denied.
    Voters who did show up at incorrect polling places would be eligible for a provisional ballot.
    "We have a strong belief those ... ballots are in our favor," Wertheim said.
    Madrid and her supporters may have to wait several more days to learn whether their hunch is right: Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera said late Thursday night that the final tally of the remaining ballots might not come until next week.
    In her Thursday night news conference, Wilson acknowledged the many voters who cast ballots against her and held out an olive branch.
    "My door is open to you," she said to Madrid supporters. "We may not always agree, but I will listen— and seek to find common ground, if there is common ground to be found."
    Wilson's lead over Madrid hovered at 1,334 votes for most of the day Thursday as workers continued to tally thousands of ballots in the 1st District contest.
    The new total, which added 3,899 votes to the tally and tacked another 273 votes to her lead, came after 9 p.m.
    The count of Bernalillo County votes in a congressional district that includes precincts in five counties overall has moved slowly since the Tuesday election.
    Among the reasons cited by elections workers for the long wait: working out the bugs in the state's new paper-ballot system; a dwindling supply of exhausted election workers; and a discrepancy in voting totals discovered Wednesday that prompted a presiding elections judge to review the hand-counted absentee ballots.
    "We are experiencing a new election system," said county elections administrator Jaime Diaz, referring to the paper-ballot system pushed for this general election by Gov. Bill Richardson.
    Wilson grumbled publicly as she awaited word on whether she has truly bucked a national, anti-Republican groundswell that gave Democrats control of the House and Senate.
    "New Mexicans deserve better than the delays and the confusion that has come to typify the tallying of votes in Bernalillo County," Wilson said before her Thursday night claim of victory.
    Madrid was upbeat earlier Thursday.
    "This is not anywhere near over. What we need to do is make sure that every vote counts— and every vote is counted," Brewer said.
    Although some New Mexicans have become accustomed to long delays in voting results, Bernalillo County is far from alone this time around: The outcome of nine other U.S. House races around the nation also remained in limbo Thursday.
    In addition to problems with the vote count, the Wilson-Madrid contest had been so close that neither candidate was willing to claim victory before Thursday night.
    Democratic and Republican legal moves in state and federal courts in Santa Fe on Thursday were resolved when Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron issued instructions to county clerks to follow the state statute on determining which provisional ballots to count instead of her own, more restrictive regulations.
    As long as the last name, the birth date and the last four digits of the Social Security number match, the provisional ballot should be accepted, Vigil-Giron said.
    Journal staff writers Dan McKay and Gabriela C. Guzman contributed to this report

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