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Battleground New Mexico: Congressional Races Signal Blue November

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Voters across New Mexico came out to cast their ballots in Tuesday's primaries for the players who will be taking part in a groundbreaking election in the ultimate swing state.

With no incumbents running for Senate or the state's three Congressional districts, the election promises to change the political face of New Mexico, which is losing much of its seniority with the retirement of six-term Republican Sen. Pete Domenici.

All three of the state's sitting House members ran for Domenici's seat. Rep. Tom Udall faced no opposition to become the Democratic Party's nominee for the open Senate seat, while Republican Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce duked it out in a contentious and hard-fought battle. As expected, the GOP race between the two candidates was close, with Pearce defeating Wilson 51 percent to 49 percent.

Throughout the primary campaign, Wilson painted herself as a commonsense conservative and a more moderate candidate than Pearce, but was unable to win the nomination even with a last-minute endorsement from Domenici.

Pearce's win should make Democrats happy as Wilson had an uncanny ability to attract independent voters. Since 1998, Wilson has remained the 1st Congressional District's representative, despite the fact that Albuquerque and the sparsely populated outlying area she represents has more registered Democrats than Republicans. May 2008 statistics from the Secretary of State's office show that 47 percent of registered voters in the 1st district are Democrats, while just 34 percent are Republicans.

"This congressional district is swing," said Brian Sanderoff, an independent pollster. "It tends to go Democrat in lower-profile races, but for various reasons has always gone Republican since 1968. It's a combination of coincidence and a lack of a good Democratic candidates."

The Democratic Party is banking on finally taking the 1st district seat this November. In one of the most competitive districts in the nation, former Albuquerque City Councilor Martin Heinrich won the Democratic nomination over three other candidates, including two Hispanic women. No small task given that the 1st district is 43 percent Hispanic. Heinrich benefited from an early campaign start and by raising more money than his other competitors.

He faces a battle against Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, who trounced state Senator Joe Carraro in the primary. White raised more money, received more endorsements and was joined by President Bush at a fundraiser a week before the election.

In his victory speech, White outlined specific differences between himself and Heinrich regarding issues like health care, anti-terrorism laws and tax reform.

"The real challenge is in front of us," said White. "From local issues... to national issues, my opponent stands with the most extreme elements of the Democratic Party."

Heinrich is hopeful that White's ties to the Bush administration will help him become the first Democrat to win the 1st district's seat. White served as Bush-Cheney's 2004 Bernalillo County campaign chairman in the 2004 election.

Heinrich's victory speech Tuesday night was aimed at promoting change from the policies of the Republican Party.

"We have a choice between real change or more of the same and to embrace this opportunity we need to have people in Congress with real vision for America's future," said Heinrich. "For too long, George Bush, Dick Cheney and the Washington Republicans have left the middle class behind. We're not going to let that happen."

Democrats are also hopeful they may be able to pick up a House seat in New Mexico's southern 2nd Congressional District, where a crowded field of five Republicans and two Democrats sought their party's nominations.

Ed Tinsley, a restaurant owner, won the GOP's nomination and will face Hobbs businessman Harry Teague in the general election. Though the last Democrat to hold the 2nd district seat was Harold Runnels in 1980, the party believes that with the current political climate, they can win in the traditionally conservative district.

In northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District, Ben Ray Lujan, a Public Regulation Commissioner and son of state House speaker Ben Lujan, won the nomination over five other Democrats. He faces Republican Daniel East, a utility contractor, in the state's most Democratic district.

Democrats hope that with a strong field of candidates, they will be able to gain more traction and turn New Mexico blue, in the wake of a nation that has soured on the Republican Party.

"I think that the reality is that tonight demonstrated for us that New Mexico is ready for a change," said political junkie Marshall Martinez, who was present with other Democrats at a party awaiting election night results. "We saw a sweeping victory over many incumbents in the state legislature, many people as far down as county commission-level incumbents were not re-elected and I think that speaks volumes on the Democratic and Republican side that New Mexicans want a change."

The excitement over the statewide races is magnified by a presidential election that is forecast to be just as competitive in New Mexico as it has been in the recent past. President Bush lost the state to Al Gore by less than 600 votes in 2000. Four years later, Bush defeated John Kerry by nearly 6,000 votes, making New Mexico one of only two states to switch from blue to red between 2000 and 2004.

Underscoring the importance of New Mexico this election, both presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama visited the battleground state last week.

Confounding the presidential election will be outlying factors that could play a role in November. McCain hails from neighboring Arizona and his military background may be appealing to the important military constituency in New Mexico. While Obama's trouble winning over the Hispanic vote in his battle to become the first African American nominee for president could play a huge factor in determining if he can win the Southwestern state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, New Mexico's population is 45 percent Hispanic, the highest percentage of any state.

"The first question is whether Obama can get Hispanics to come home. How will Hispanics relate to Barack Obama?" said pollster Sanderoff. "McCain is from a neighboring state just like Bush was. Part of the reason the Democrats lost last time was some people had a hard time relating to Kerry. Now you've got a Western governor with Bush and a Western senator with McCain."

For many New Mexicans, the economy was among the top issues in determining whom they voted for in yesterday's primary and whom they would support to win the general election come November.

Carrie McNeil, a homemaker who voted for Heather Wilson and Darren White, said the state of the economy has deeply affected her.

"The economy is struggling," said McNeil. "I have seven children and it costs a lot to feed them and clothe them, so any thing in the economy, especially gas, it takes a bite out of our pocket book."

Sanderoff said the economy would be an important issue for many New Mexicans because the state is one of the poorest in the nation on a per capita basis.

"The gap between the lowest and highest income levels is bigger [in New Mexico] than most states," said Sanderoff. "If you have a lower income and you have more mouths to feed you're going to feel the economic clench in slow economic times more than others."

Nicole Hoke, a University of New Mexico student majoring in cinematic arts, hopes that whoever will take office after the election will be able to improve the economy.

"Right now, as a student, it's hard for me to decide if I'm going to put $5 in my tank or buy dinner for me and my husband, so I think a lot of people can relate to that," said Hoke. "I think they realize we need a change."