Democrat Martin Heinrich won New Mexico's open U.S. Senate seat Tuesday, defeating Republican Heather Wilson with strong support from Hispanic and female voters.
Heinrich carried the vote-rich Albuquerque area, which is home to a third of the state's electorate, and he picked up solid margins in heavily Democratic and Hispanic areas in northern New Mexico, according to incomplete, unofficial returns.
Wilson outpaced Heinrich in traditional GOP strongholds of eastern and southern New Mexico, but it wasn't enough to overcome Heinrich in a state that also favored Democratic President Barack Obama for a second term.
New Mexico filled an open U.S. Senate seat for the second time in four years in a race that saw the candidates relentlessly punch away at one another over jobs, health care and taxes. Each spent more than $6 million on their campaigns.
Heinrich's victory ensures Democrats will hang on to the Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Bingaman, who is retiring after 30 years.
In his victory speech, Heinrich applauded Bingaman as "an example of how the Senate ought to work," saying he worked for results, not credit.
"In an era when personal attacks have replaced tempered political discourse, he really set the bar for what we all ought to look to," Heinrich told his cheering supporters.
Heinrich said later in a phone interview that his top priority is to go back to Washington this year and help forge a compromise on the nation's deficit before a January deadline.
"Making sure we resolve some of these issues before the fiscal cliff hits is absolutely critical," Heinrich said.
He said he is more optimistic about reaching a deal after Tuesday's results, which saw Obama win a second term and the Democrats pick up seats in Congress.
An emotional Wilson conceded the race, saying Heinrich "promised he would always put New Mexico first. He has earned the opportunity to keep that promise, and we should all wish him well in that effort."
Heinrich and Wilson are congressional veterans. Also on the ballot was Independent American Party candidate Jon Barrie.
Heinrich has represented the Albuquerque-area 1st Congressional District since 2009. He took over the seat from Wilson, who held it for 10 years before stepping down to run unsuccessfully for the GOP Senate nomination four years ago after Republican incumbent Pete Domenici decided to retire.
Associated Press exit polls found that a gender gap among voters played a role in Heinrich's victory. He won a majority of women voters while men split between the candidates.
Hispanics, a traditional Democratic voting bloc, favored Heinrich nearly 2-to-1. He also was strongly favored by voters under 30, liberals and self-described moderates — a swing group that doesn't reliability back one party or the other from election to election.
Wilson ran stronger than Heinrich among whites, conservatives and voters who identified themselves as independents.
Both candidates performed about the same in reaching across party lines for support. However, Wilson needed to do better. It's critical for a statewide GOP candidate to attract significant crossover support among Democrats because the party has a 3-to-2 advantage in voter registration over Republicans.
Heinrich was favored among voters who considered health care the most important issue facing the county while Wilson supporters identified the federal budget deficit as the top issue. Those divisions reflected the themes the candidates used in their advertising during the campaign.
Voters who viewed the economy as the most important issue were split between Heinrich and Wilson. New Mexicans who said taxes were the biggest economic problem favored Wilson.
New Mexicans were almost evenly divided about their assessment of the economy on whether it's getting better, worse or staying about the same.
The themes of the Senate campaign mirrored many of those in the presidential race. Heinrich portrayed himself as a defender of the middle class and safety net programs such as Medicare and Social Security. But Wilson blamed Democratic policies for job losses and the nation's sputtering economy. She opposed President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which Heinrich supported.
Heinrich, 41, has quickly climbed up the ranks in New Mexico politics. He moved to the state in 1995 to take a job at a federal research facility after earning an engineering degree from the University of Missouri. He later started a public affairs consulting business and in 2003 won a seat on the Albuquerque city council. Three years later he became state natural resources trustee, an appointive state government job overseeing the restoration of environmentally contaminated areas.
Heinrich grew up in Missouri, where his father was a utility company lineman and his mother was a factory worker.
Wilson, 51, is an Air Force Academy graduate whose Scottish grandfather served in the Royal Air Force in World War I. She won election to Congress in 1998 after serving in the cabinet of former Gov. Gary Johnson as the administrator of the state's juvenile justice agency.
After leaving Congress, Wilson returned to New Mexico and worked as a defense industry consultant.
Follow Barry Massey at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP .
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.