R.J. Berry accepts his victory as his parents, son and wife cheer. Photo by MG Bralley

R.J. Berry accepts his victory as his parents, son and wife cheer. Photo by Mark Bralley.

GOP challenger Richard Berry surprised even himself Tuesday, knocking off longtime Democratic Mayor Martin Chavez and avoiding a two-man runoff while doing it.

Berry, a two-term Republican state legislator, bested Chavez in convincing fashion, collecting nearly 44 percent of votes to Chavez’s 35 percent. Richard Romero received nearly 21 percent of the vote. Only provisional ballots remained to be counted early Wednesday.

Berry’s victory, while surprising, was not as shocking as it would have seemed two months ago. An Albuquerque Journal poll published in the waning days of the mayor’s race showed Berry ahead of Chavez and Romero. That poll set off a wild sprint among the three mayoral campaigns, as each hurled negative attacks at each other in hopes of gaining momentum heading into election day.

But within an hour of the polls’ closing, there were signs that Berry was flirting with the previously unthinkable: He would take down a three-term Democratic mayor and make it look easy.

“We’re really disappointed in some of the precincts [where] we thought we’d do better,” Romero said at his house, about an hour after polls closed. “Berry has just shown some strength in some areas that we weren’t expecting, you know. Independents seem to have gone with him. And they’re the swing votes in any election here in Albuquerque. His message maybe connected with them better.”

It was the same story, over and over again Tuesday: Berry defied expectations.

A somber Chavez seemed to acknowledge that fact about 9:45 p.m., when he addressed a hangdog-looking crowd of his supporters at O’Niell’s Irish Pub in Nob Hill.

“The votes are not all counted,” Chavez said, his microphone flickering on and off. “Clearly, if the trend continues, R.J. Berry will be the next mayor of Albuquerque this evening. I have spoken with R.J. I’ve congratulated him on a great campaign. He and I will be meeting tomorrow at noon.”

Chavez, who was Albuquerque’s mayor for a total of three terms, and who briefly ran for U.S. Senate, clearly was coming to grips with a sooner-than-expected end to his run as mayor of New Mexico’s largest city.

“I’m really proud of what’s been accomplished in this city,” he told a scrum of reporters wedged into the crowd of supporters. “We did things that folks said couldn’t be done. If this is my last term, I leave this city, my hometown, a much better place.”

As for what the future held for him, Chavez quipped that he would find a job.

What type of job, a reporter asked.

“Whatever is lucrative,” Chavez said. “I have made tremendous financial sacrifices in this job and I am looking forward to spending more time with my kids and providing for their future.”

Meanwhile, Berry was reluctant to declare victory until late Tuesday night.

“We’re not there yet,” Berry told well wishers who congratulated him on his victory.

Berry attributed his election night success to a combination of factors, including his business background, “a common sense attitude,” and his four years in the state Legislature.

And he wasn’t totally surprised by his showing.

“As we’ve gone through the campaign, we’ve seen common things when we’ve talked to people,” Berry said. “We haven’t had a whole lot of negative feedback in our campaign. We’ve talked to a lot of people. We see a lot of people nodding their heads up and down.”

Republican majority wins City Council

Chavez wasn’t the only incumbent to lose Tuesday night.

City Councilor Michael Cadigan lost a bid Tuesday to serve another four-year term, altering the makeup of the city council at a time when the city’s growth has emerged as a major consideration. Cadigan lost to newcomer Dan Lewis in a race that some said was part of an organized campaign. Some city council members charged that a large California developer had targeted Cadigan as an opponent of a special tax plan to help the developer pay for roads, water and sewers for a huge mixed-use development on the city’s west side.

Cadigan struggled against a last-minute attack by a political committee called Moving Albuquerque Forward, which was financed, in part, by SunCal, a large California developer. The organization sent out flyers criticizing Cadigan’s tenure as councilor for District 5.

City Council President Isaac Benton easily dispatched term-limited Bernalillo County Commissioner Alan Armijo.

Mayor’s race: a wild sprint

Early on it appeared as if the incumbent might walk away with the race, but unlike the city council races, the mayor’s race ended in a wild sprint.

While Berry and Romero started hammering away at Chavez in the spring, it wasn’t until the last three weeks that Chavez took the gloves off. His campaign put out advertisements questioning Richard Berry’s business experience, in light of Berry’s frequent claim that he’d run city government more like a business.

For much of the spring and summer, Chavez appeared to stay above the fray, ignoring the critiques in an attempt to strike a pose of a veteran chief executive concerned more with governing than the day-to-day politics of a campaign.

But this was a bruising campaign for Chavez. Amid all the criticisms from the Romero and Berry campaigns, Chavez had to fend off accusations that his administration sought favors in return for city contracts.

A city contractor, John Bode of Bode Aero Services, made detailed allegations against the mayor and some city staff involving pressure for favors in sworn testimony; Chavez called Bode’s lawsuit “absolute garbage.”

Chavez mentioned none of those setbacks Tuesday night as he delivered what was in all respects a concession speech.

“I believe in my heart these races and the mayorship, it is not a football game, it’s not a baseball game, with a winner and a loser,” Chavez said, addressing his supporters. “It’s a relay race. And each mayor has to move that baton, have to move that team forward. And I am proud we’ve moved the city of Albuquerque forward immeasurably.”

Then he told the crowd about an exchange he had had with a voter Tuesday.

“I had someone approach me at a polling place today and said you know Albuquerque was like a little ugly duckling but under your administration it spread its wings and today it’s a beautiful swan,” the mayor said.

Follow NMI on Twitter and become a fan of NMI on Facebook. Got a news tip? Want to pitch a story idea? Send us an e-mail.