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The race is on in the 3rd Congressional District

It’s not up to the standards of the Democratic presidential campaign, but the race for northern New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District seat looks like it will be crowded.

Officially, seven Democrats have registered to run for the U.S. House seat that represents Santa Fe, Rio Rancho, Farmington, Clovis and Gallup, and parts in between and beyond, up to the Colorado border.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján is giving up his House seat to run for U.S. Senate next year, clearing the way for a competitive race for his 3rd Congressional District seat. (Courtesy of The Campaign For Ben Ray Luján)

One has dropped out since filing and another is deceased, but plenty of others are talking about throwing hats into this ring.

The good thing, both for political animals who like a good fight and for voters in general, is that at least at this point, there does not appear to appear to be an obvious favorite, no designated prince or princess for which the pathway to victory has been cleared.

Luján, leaving the House to run for Senate next year, didn’t have a total cakewalk when first elected in 2008. But as the son of the powerful state House speaker at the time (the late Ben Lujan), he appeared to benefit from other potentially strong Democratic candidates deciding that the better part of valor was to stay away.

Luján has romped to re-election since then, with no serious primary competition, and Republicans haven’t been able to compete in such a blue district.

This time around, Valerie Plame, a Santa Fe resident since 2007, has made the biggest splash in the 3rd CD race. Famously outed as a CIA operative by the George W. Bush administration, she is a nationally known figure – no one else in the race has ever had a Hollywood movie starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn made about part of their biographies.

Her story gives her instant credibility with Democrats and has to be good for many campaign bucks from far and wide, and she has been an active part of the community since coming to New Mexico.

She also probably has the inside track toward becoming the pick of Santa Fe’s progressive political establishment, despite that blip about tweeting out an article about Israel from a website considered anti-Semitic and then apologizing for it.

The question is whether she can gain sufficient traction in the rest of the district, or will voters away from Santa Fe be turned off by the sheen of her national fame and the inevitable accusations that she’s carpetbagging.

Santa Fe lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez has an impressive résumé: an undergraduate degree from Yale, a law degree from Stanford, service on the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation under appointment by Barack Obama, and time as a White House Fellow with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration.

She was prominent in one high-profile political story – she represented a group of voters who successfully sued to force Santa Fe to use ranked-choice voting in the 2018 election, as city voters had mandated by approval of city charter amendment a decade before. She will have to build name recognition to have a chance. Still, Leger has something Plame doesn’t – deep New Mexico roots via her family in the Las Vegas area.

Then there’s Santa Fe District Attorney Marco Serna, another scion of traditional northern New Mexico. He established political bonafides by winning a hard-fought race for the top prosecutor’s job in 2016, racking up big margins in Rio Arriba County and holding his own in the other two counties in the judicial district – Santa Fe and Los Alamos – for the primary, then taking out a Republican with ease. He’s filed to run for the 3rd CD, but has refused to say he will in fact be a candidate.

Serna comes with a built-in political base developed by his father, former state insurance superintendent and longtime politico Eric Serna, that helped the son raise money from around the country during his race for DA. But that same legacy has a flip side – voters rejected Eric Serna in a special election for the 3rd CD seat in 1997.

The father also left the insurance superintendent’s job in 2006 amid controversy and investigations over contributions to a charity that Serna helped start by insurance companies and a bank that did business with the state Insurance Division. Marco Serna also has a significant blemish on his record as district attorney – a judge let a murder defendant walk free because Serna’s office couldn’t meet speedy trial deadlines.

The other viable Democratic candidate to file so far is first-term state Rep. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde. But his chances in a Democratic field are diminished by conservative votes he made in this year’s legislative session.

As we said, others are talking about getting into this race, but none of them is an obvious frontrunner, either.

It’s tempting to divide up 3rd CD voters by various demographics – neighborhood, wealth and ethnicity – and start making predictions about who will win. It may come down to which candidate can hold on to his or her base and get just enough votes from elsewhere to come out on top. So far, who that will be is far from clear.

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