The national political action committee Emily’s List is endorsing Santa Fe lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez to represent New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District.

The Washington, D.C.-based group that funds female candidates who favor abortion rights said it chose Leger Fernandez because of her strong ties to the district and her decades-long experience as an attorney in Northern New Mexico communities.

The announcement is a key early endorsement for the first-time candidate, who is running in a crowded field of Democratic primary candidates that includes First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna and former CIA agent Valerie Plame. The group’s endorsements in last year’s elections helped Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham , U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, all Democrats, win their respective races.

“Once you get endorsed by them, they usually can raise you a tremendous amount of money, especially in a multiperson race,” former state Attorney General Patricia Madrid said. “Emily’s List endorsed Lujan Grisham and she came out of that race and was able to compete with everyone on money.”

Leger Fernandez, 59, is a graduate of Yale University and Stanford Law School. As a lawyer, she brought a lawsuit against Santa Fe that resulted in the city using ranked-choice voting in its elections last year. She also represented Native American tribes during the 2011 redistricting process.

Leger Fernandez was a White House fellow assigned to the Department of Housing and Urban Development during President Bill Clinton’s administration. She also was a member of President Barack Obama’s advisory council on historic preservation.

The candidate said in an interview that she hoped the endorsement would help her become the first woman to represent New Mexico’s 3rd District.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the support from Emily’s List,” she said. “It’s exciting to be following in the footsteps of the women the state elected in 2018 with help from Emily’s List.”

The seat in the 3rd District is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who is running for U.S. Senate.

Other Democratic primary election candidates include state Rep. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde, management consultant Rob Apodaca, former Navajo Nation presidential candidate Dineh Benally, Gavin Kaiser of Santa Cruz and Cameron Alton Chick Sr. of Rio Rancho. New Mexico Democrats for Democracy founder Brett Kokinadis is running as a Republican.

The heavily Democratic district comprises a large swath of territory that includes 11 full counties and sections of five more. It is also culturally diverse, as it includes the cities of Santa Fe, Rio Rancho and Farmington, large rural areas, Indian pueblos and parts of the Navajo Nation.

That diversity means that while some of the candidates can already benefit from name recognition in certain areas, none is especially well-known across the entire district, said longtime New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff.

Serna, for instance, has received publicity thanks to his current position and given that his father was state insurance superintendent, while Leger Fernandez and Benally are known among Native American communities. Plame has been known nationally since her identity as a CIA officer was leaked and published by columnist Robert Novak in 2003, yet she likely isn’t as well-known in rural parts of the district, Sanderoff said.

Given the large field, a candidate could conceivably win without drawing a huge number of votes. Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy at the University of New Mexico, said earlier this month that a candidate could win with only about a quarter of the total vote.

“The Democratic primary is a long way off, and most of these candidates have a great opportunity to become better known within the district,” Sanderoff said. “A lot will depend on how much money they can raise and how much they can get their message out there.”

Emily’s List, founded in 1985, has raised more than $600 million for pro-choice Democratic female candidates. The group trains candidates, helps them hire staff and provides assistance with fundraising. In the 2018 elections, it helped elect 34 new women to the U.S. House.

“Teresa Leger Fernandez is a community leader whose commitment to service will make her an excellent representative for New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District,” Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement. “Teresa’s priorities include strengthening public education, promoting economic growth and security, and protecting New Mexico’s public lands and water.”

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Reporter

Jens Erik Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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