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Pearce-Udall Match Set

With all but two precincts reporting, Republican Rep. Steve Pearce narrowly edged out fellow Rep. Heather Wilson to clinch the nomination to replace retiring Senator Pete Domenici in New Mexico last night. Pearce will face the state's third member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, in November, after Udall ran unopposed for his party's nomination.

Pearce overcame Wilson's margins in Bernalillo County, the state's population center which she has represented for ten years and which she won by a two-to-one margin. Those votes consisted of a little more than half the nearly 54,000 votes Wilson earned. Pearce earned larger margins in counties in the southern part of the state, which he has represented for three terms in Congress, including a 71%-29% win in Dona Ana County, the state's second largest, home of Las Cruces.

The contest between Pearce and Udall, who represents the state's northern Third District, will pit two clearly competing philosophies against one another. Pearce ran to Wilson's right in the primary, and his conservative voting record in the House will mark a clear distinction with Udall, who has maintained a largely liberal voting record during his five terms in office. Public polls have showed Udall leading Pearce by twenty points or more, a similar lead to the one he boasted over Wilson.

Both candidates come with strong home bases, and the contest will be fought over Wilson's Albuquerque base. That district has become the prototypical swing district of late, narrowly voting for Al Gore, who took the state's electoral votes in 2000 by just more than 360 votes, and John Kerry, who lost the state by a mere 6,000 votes in 2004.

Rarely do three congressional seats come open in the same state in the same year, and never has a state with just three seats to begin with experienced such turnover. Running to replace Wilson, both parties got their best possible candidates. Republican Darren White, the Bernalillo County sheriff, easily beat a more conservative state senator, while New Mexico City Councilman Martin Heinrich scored 43% of the vote to beat two Hispanic-surnamed candidates on the Democratic side.

White has long been touted as one of the best candidates Republicans have fielded this year, while Heinrich has shown an impressive ability to raise big money. Both have a base in the district, though Heinrich's is much more localized around his city council district. White has been elected twice in the county that makes up more than 90% of the district. Both parties have signaled a willingness to play strongly in Albuquerque, and it promises to be one of the closest races in the country.

"Darren White would continue where George Bush leaves off, promoting a Republican agenda that has failed our middle class and our troops in Iraq," said Yoni Cohen, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In Pearce's Second District, former Lea County Commissioner Harry Teague narrowly ousted Dona Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley by a 52%-48% margin to win the Democratic primary. McCamley won big in his home county, the district's population base, but Teague, whose home in Hobbs hugs the Texas border, cobbled together wins in fifteen of the district's eighteen counties.

On the Republican side, restaurateur Ed Tinsley won 31% of the vote in a crowded five-way primary for the win. Tinsley's closest competitors, Hobbs Mayor Monty Newman and retired banker Aubrey Dunn, won 21% and 20%, respectively. Newman won half the votes in his home county, but Tinsley managed to win more raw votes from Dona Ana County, potentially presaging a problem for Democrat Teague in the general.

The Second District gave President Bush a seventeen-point margin in 2004, a six-point improvement from his 2000 performance there. Tinsley, who lost to Pearce in the 2002 primary, should be the favorite, but national Democrats have suggested they will play in the district.

"Santa Fe's own Ed Tinsley is out of touch with voters in Southern New Mexico," Cohen said. "As a moderate businessman who helped create thousands of jobs, Harry Teague fits the district."

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain, though, said Democratic efforts would be futile. "Thanks to the high quality of our newly minted nominees, Republicans are positioned to retain both competitive open seats in New Mexico," he said, praising White's law enforcement background and Tinsley's business credentials while slamming Heinrich ("lack[s] any real world experience aside from being a part-time camp counselor") and Teague (who "limp[ed] out of the primary" after being considered the front-runner).

Udall's Third District is likely to stay in Democratic hands. State Public Regulation Commission Chair Ben Lujan, the son of the state House Speaker, won a surprisingly large victory, garnering 42% of the vote. Real estate developer Don Wiviott, who spent a boatload of his own money, came in second with 25%. On the Republican side, real estate developer Dan East beat attorney Marco Gonzales 53%-47%.

The northern part of the state is to Democrats what the southern portion is to Republicans. Gore and Kerry each won the district by nine points, and Udall has never had a problem keeping the seat.