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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Retired Marine Col. Allen Weh on Tuesday easily defeated political newcomer David Clements for the unlikely chance to unseat popular Democratic Sen. Tom Udall in November.
The 71-year-old Weh had 64 percent of the vote in unofficial returns from the GOP primary.
A wealthy Albuquerque businessman, Weh spent more than $200,000 of his own money against Clements, a political newcomer with little cash who surprised many by winning 47 percent of delegate support at the state convention earlier this year.
Weh is a former state GOP party chairman who made a run for governor four years ago, coming in second behind Gov. Susana Martinez in a five-way primary.
But despite his veteran status and deep pockets, political watchers have said the GOP has little chance of winning over Udall, a popular former congressman and state attorney general with $3 million cash on hand.
A recent computer model of races conducted for The New York Times says Udall is one of 14 Senate incumbents with a 99 percent chance of retaining their seats. University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez noted that Udall has high approval ratings that will make it difficult for any GOP contender to raise money.
Weh, however, insisted those behind the predictions "just don't understand."
"Things are changing," he said Tuesday night from his election headquarters. "They are going to change this year. And my message is real simple: If you like what's going on in Washington, send Tom Udall back. But if you don't like what's going on, you've got to change the people."
Part of Weh's campaign has been to stress the need for more military veterans over lawyers in the Senate, especially in light of the recent revelations of secret waiting lists and delayed care at Veterans Affairs medical centers around the country. Udall is an attorney.
Weh served two tours in the Vietnam War in the Marines before rising to the rank of colonel and retiring in 1997. He also served in the Persian Gulf War and in Somalia.
On Tuesday night, Weh seized on the Republican anger over the Obama Administration's exchange of five high-level Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a young soldier who walked away from his unit in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and into five years of captivity by the Taliban.
"I cannot believe what the administration has done in exchanging five hardened killers for what now appears to be an Army deserter," Weh said. "... That's ludicrous. That puts a target on the back and a prison value on the back of every American serviceman and woman serving overseas, every CIA agent, every foreign service officer."
Weh joined the race in January and has raised nearly $600,000, including $217,000 of his own money, according to the latest reports. Clements, an attorney from Las Cruces, started his grass-roots campaign in November, raising and spending about $40,000, the last filings showed.
In other primary races, two political newcomers were vying for the Republican nomination for the 1st Congressional District seat currently held by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Mike Frese, a 66-year-old scientist and small business owner from Corrales, defeated Richard Priem, a 64-year-old businessman and retired Army veteran from Albuquerque, with 65 percent of the vote.
For the 2nd Congressional seat, Democratic three-term incumbent Rep. Ben Ray Lujan easily defeated challenger Robert Blanch, an assistant district attorney in Albuquerque, with 87 percent in unofficial returns.
Lujan will face Republican Jefferson Byrd of Tucumcari for a second time in November.
There were no primary races for southern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Steve Pearce, who will run against Democratic attorney Roxanne "Rocky" Laura from Carlsbad in November.