GOP House race drags on after vote-counting board walks out

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A Republican congressional primary remained undecided on Thursday as local election regulators in northern New mexico tallied a deluge of absentee ballots.

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Vote tabulation stretched into a third day in Santa Fe County, as three Republicans competed for the 3rd Congressional District nomination and the chance to succeed U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan as he runs for U.S. Senate. Sen. Tom Udall is retiring.

The contenders are Navajo Nation member Karen Evette Bedonie of Mexican Springs, environmental engineer Alexis Johnson of Santa Fe and former Santa Fe County commissioner Harry Montoya.

The tight race has been complicated by complaints of unsent absentee ballots and polling stations closed because of COVID-19.

Tracey Sisco, a 58-year-old clerk at a general store, went to her local precinct polling place at a firehouse in the town of Blanco on Tuesday to vote in the Republican primary and found it was closed. A sign directed her to vote in another town 10 miles (16 kilometers) away, she said.

“Being disabled, I can’t jump at the drop of a hat,” said Sisco, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and favored Johnson in the congressional race as a tough, pro-life candidate. “I just feel like I was robbed of my right to vote.”

Election regulators in Taos and Santa Fe missed a Wednesday evening statutory deadline for completing the count and received permission from a state district court judge for an extension. By Thursday evening, Taos County had completed its count and Santa Fe still was tallying thousands of ballots.

More than 247,000 absentee ballots were cast statewide — up from about 23,000 in 2016 — as state authorities encouraged people to vote remotely by mail to guard against the coronavirus.

Overall voting surged past 375,000 from roughly 320,000 in the 2016 presidential primary. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination, and Trump won state GOP backing to seek reelection.

“What you can see is our electorate is more engaged than it has been in a primary for decades,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. “They've had some time for life to slow down. ... They were watching more news, getting more input about this election. They got fired up and wanted to vote.”

At the same time, Ferguson said Common Cause is taking stock of whether participation was hindered by the state's timetable for initiating absentee ballot applications and lengthy delivery times in remote regions.

Native American communities are of particular concern amid continued coronavirus lockdowns and curfews that shut down many polling locations, restricted travel and may have contributed to mail delays. Only ballots received by 7 p.m. Tuesday are being counted toward election results.

The Democratic nomination in the 3rd District went to attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, a professional advocate for Native American communities and voting rights, who defeated six competitors, including former CIA operative Valerie Plame. Democrats have monopolized the 3rd Congressional District with the exception of one special election, starting with former Gov. Bill Richardson in 1982.

Republican primary voters embraced a well-known former television weatherman, Mark Ronchetti of Albuquerque, as their Senate nominee to take on Lujan.

Former state Rep. Yvette Herrell won the GOP nomination for a second time to the southern 2nd Congressional District, setting up a rematch with Democrat U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of Las Cruces. Herrell ran as a Trump loyalist against petroleum executive and former lobbyist Claire Chase of Roswell, a first-time political candidate.

State election regulators expected at least 30 out of 33 counties to complete tallies by Wednesday night to avoid court intervention, said Alex Curtas, a spokesman for the New Mexico secretary of state's office. Delays are traced partly to the demands of opening ballot envelopes and sorting paper.

“There were definitely challenges associated with the massive influx of absentee votes, but overall everything ran really smoothly," Curtas said in an email.

In state legislative races, progressive Democratic candidates ousted leading Senate incumbents including Senate President Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Senate finance committee chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming and banker and Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants. Those candidates had stood in the way of the legalization of recreational marijuana, overturning the state's dormant ban on abortion and greater spending from the multibillion-dollar state education trust fund.

State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said his party sees an opportunity to win over moderate Democratic and independent voters in fall elections.