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New Mexico makes history with all-female US House team

November 4, 2020 GMT
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Democratic congressional candidate Teresa Leger Fernandez, in the blue mask, cheers on supporters at a polling station Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. Fernandez was flanked by her three sons, left to right, Alisandro, Dario and Abelino. The sign she holds, "Ahora es cuando," is Spanish for "Now is the time." (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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Democratic congressional candidate Teresa Leger Fernandez, in the blue mask, cheers on supporters at a polling station Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. Fernandez was flanked by her three sons, left to right, Alisandro, Dario and Abelino. The sign she holds, "Ahora es cuando," is Spanish for "Now is the time." (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Republican Yvette Herrell on Tuesday staged an upset to win a contested race for a U.S. House seat in New Mexico, beating incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small in what was New Mexico’s most watched congressional contest.

In the other two races, Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez won a seat in the 3rd Congressional District to succeed U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Democratic U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland was reelected in the 1st District, as the state sends its first all-female U.S. House delegation to Congress.

The race between Herrell and Torres Small was a rematch of 2018. This time, Herrell embraced televised debates, proclaimed her support for the oil and gas industry and repeatedly slammed the Democrat over her vote to impeach President Donald Trump.

Herrell also made an effort to broaden her campaign beyond the region’s more conservative strongholds. In recent weeks, Trump and other big-name Republicans campaigned virtually for Herrell.

Trump won the district by 10 points in 2016, and GOP voters were again energized during this presidential election cycle. Torres Small had won the district in 2018 by a slim margin during a Democratic wave.

Herrell said it will be an honor to serve the district.

“My commitment to each citizen of our district is that I will serve each of them with integrity as we work together to rebuild our economy and protect the values that make America great,” she said.

While Torres Small maintained a fundraising edge throughout the race, Herrell received a surge in donations during the third quarter. She raised more than $1 million — one of the biggest fundraising quarters for a Republican congressional candidate in state history.

New Republican registrations in the district also outpaced Democrats by more than double the margin of victory in the first contest between the two candidates in 2018.

Herrell spent part of Tuesday praying, thanking her supporters and calling voters throughout the district to ensure they were casting ballots as the race was decided by New Mexico’s record turnout.

The election also marked another milestone because in all of the U.S. House races, at least one Latina or one Native American woman was on the ballot, making for some of the most diverse political battles in the U.S.

In northern New Mexico, Leger Fernandez defeated Republican engineer Alexis Johnson in an open race. Leger Fernandez’s campaign was backed by a long list of advocacy groups for progressive causes and greater Latina representation in Congress.

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Leger Fernandez becomes the first woman to hold the 3rd District seat since its creation in 1983. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 in the district, which overlaps portions of the Navajo Nation and includes other Native American communities.

Leger Fernandez supports new investments in renewable energy and a transition toward a single-payer health care system. Johnson campaigned on an anti-abortion platform that emphasized limited government in the heavily Roman Catholic district.

Surrounded by family, Leger Fernandez told supporters watching online that she considered each vote in support of her campaign a statement of trust. She vowed Tuesday night to also earn the trust of those who did not vote for her, saying she would listen and strategize with them.

In the district that includes Albuquerque, Haaland, one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, won reelection against Republican challenger Michelle Garcia Holmes. Haaland, a former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, campaigned as a vocal critic of the Trump administration.

Garcia Holmes, a former police detective, embraced Trump’s law-and-order agenda. She visited Tuesday with voters in a majority Hispanic district in Albuquerque and said New Mexicans are tired of the poverty and dismal educational outcomes that persist in the Democrat-led state.

In southern New Mexico, Herrell embraced Trump’s border wall strategy and promoted her pro-petroleum philosophy in her bid to unseat Torres Small. She also tried to draw parallels between her opponent and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with ads focused on Torres Small’s voting record and ties to gun control activists flooding the airwaves during the campaign’s final days.

Torres Small attempted to portray herself as a moderate who opposed her party’s line on certain issues, like banning fracking and limiting oil and gas development on federal land.

Torres Small recently tried to distance herself from comments made by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden — who has waffled on oil and gas development, saying early on that he opposed fracking only to be corrected by his campaign and then later suggested he would ban new drilling permits on federal land.

The issue of energy development is important in New Mexico, which is home to part of one of the world’s richest oil and natural gas basins. Revenue from the industry underpins the state budget and supports tens of thousands of jobs.