By RUSSELL CONTRERAS
RIO RANCHO, N.M. — New Mexico voters have a chance this year to send a historic all-female U.S. House delegation to Congress, no matter which party wins races.
And the state's three congresswomen may be all women of color — another national milestone.
Women are seeking the Democratic and Republican nominations in all six of the state's primary races for three congressional seats. In each of those races, at least one Latina or one Native American woman is running in her respective party's primary contests in what has turned out to be some of the most diverse political battles in the county. The women candidates have been among the largest fundraisers in races and could be their party's nominees.
New Hampshire in 2013 became the first state to have an all-female Congressional delegation (Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte, and Reps. Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter), according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Delaware's lone member of the U.S. House, Democratic Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, who is Black, helped give the state the nation's first all-female of color U.S. House delegation in 2017.
But New Mexico could wind up with the largest U.S. House delegation of women or women of color in the nation's history. The state's population of about 2 million is 49 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Native American.
"This is unusual," Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics, said. "A record number of women are running for House seats, so this is interesting."
In New Mexico's 3rd Congressional Democratic primary, for example, Yale University graduate and Stanford University-trained lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez and former CIA operative Valerie Plame are among those running in a crowded field to represent the state's northern region. Both are indicative of the area's traditional Hispanic past (Leger Fernandez is Latina) and recent coastal liberal transplants (the Anchorage, Alaska-born Plame is white).
On the Republican side, Navajo Nation member and businesswomen Karen Bedonie is waging her campaign for the GOP nomination in isolation and amid a strict curfew aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19. Her campaign literature features her in traditional Navajo clothing, and she often mentions to voters that she's a mother of eight.
The seat is open because Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan is running for U.S. Senate.
The state's 1st Congressional District is currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, who was one of the nation's first Native American congresswomen.
Retired police officer Michelle Garcia Holmes, who is Hispanic, is among three Republicans seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Haaland for the Democratic-leaning seat representing Albuquerque.
In the state's southern 2nd Congressional District, oil executive Claire Chase and former state lawmaker Yvette Herrell are locked in a nasty, three-person contest for the GOP nomination. Chase is the first female chair of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, and Herrell is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.
They are seeking to unseat Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and who grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Retired University of New Mexico political science professor Christine Marie Sierra, who has followed women in politics for years, said this moment has been building for decades in New Mexico.
"Women are now seen as viable candidates, and both parties in New Mexico are doing their part to recruit women to run for office," Sierra said. "And what you see here is a reflection of the state's diversity."
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 490 women have filed as candidates for U.S. House seats nationwide in 2020, a new record high.
That surpasses even the record-breaking 2018 midterm election, in which 476 women filed to run for House seats, the center found.
The numbers could grow because filing deadlines have yet to pass in around a dozen or so states.
Much of the surge in candidate filings is in Republican primaries across the country, the center said.
Women also are making gains in local elections. Last year, for example, Tucson, Arizona, voters elected Regina Romero, the daughter of farm workers, as the first Latina mayor in the city's history.
Leger Fernandez said whatever happens in her election, she's proud to be part of a chance to make history. As a two-year-old, she was in a coma with spinal meningitis. Doctors didn't believe she would survive.
Her grandmother, Abelina Romero Lucero, prayed to La Virgen de Guadalupe and later made a pilgrimage to Mexico to ask the heavens to heal her granddaughter.
Leger Fernandez has pictured herself having a conservation with her late grandmother after winning her race.
"I know exactly what she'd say," Leger Fernandez said. "She'd tell me, 'I knew there was a reason La Virgen let you live.' "