Former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s run for a Congressional seat in northern New Mexico had all the ingredients for Democratic success in the Trump era: Fame from a GOP administration’s persecution, a woman with a national security background and a viral campaign video to entice small-dollar donors.
But by the time Plame’s launch video — which featured her driving a sports car backward while recounting how the George W. Bush administration had ended her career as an undercover agent, racking up 1.9 million views — went viral in September 2019, one of her opponents had already started lining up the support that would turn the battle for the Democratic nomination for New Mexico’s 3rd congressional district into a neck-and-neck race.
Teresa Leger Fernandez, a longtime in-state activist, lawyer and lobbyist, had locked down the endorsement of EMILY’s List, the the powerful group backing Democratic women, a month earlier. And Leger Fernandez would soon consolidate even more support, and use it to highlight her roots in this diverse and solidly Democratic district.
As the June 2 primary nears, a once-crowded contest has narrowed down to Leger Fernandez and Plame, according to Democratic operatives tracking the race, pitting Plame’s fundraising prowess, national security experience and celebrity in liberal circles against Leger Fernandez’s longtime local ties, history of work on progressive issues and support from a host of D.C.-based outside groups eager to elect a Latina to Congress. The race is a vivid display of how, even in the most nationalized era in modern political history, some districts can still require a local touch.
“I have lived through the Bush-Cheney machine and came out the other side, and I want to be able to take that searing life experience and put it to good use for my community,” Plame said in a phone interview. “I have this national name recognition now, but it’s not something I wanted or I asked for. And if I can use that to focus on issues that I care about passionately, that’s OK. To use a cliche, I want to make lemonade out of lemons.”
But Leger Fernandez argues Plame ― who has lived in Santa Fe for more than a decade ― doesn’t understand the district in the same way she does. The daughter of a local state senator, Leger Fernandez has worked for years with the Native American tribes in the region, building rural health centers and affordable housing, and boasts of speaking “perfect New Mexican Spanish.”
“Valerie Plame has her own attributes, but she doesn’t have her own understanding of the district. And that’s what I bring to the table,” Leger Fernandez said. “I understand the district intimately, not because it’s campaign stop, but because it’s my life’s work.”
Since Leger Fernandez won the Democratic convention in the district with 42% of the votes in March, operatives tracking the race have believed she held a slight lead over Plame. A poll released Tuesday, paid for by EMILY’s List and conducted by Clarity Campaign Labs, seems to confirm that: It showed Leger Fernandez leading Plame 33% to 24%, with the remaining candidates all in single digits. The survey of 661 voters, conducted last week, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Outside interventions from groups like EMILY’s List have helped shape the race, mostly to the benefit of Leger Fernandez, who has benefited from television ads backing her from BOLD PAC ― the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus ― and from other groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.
But a digital ad that began running earlier this week attacking Plame for tweeting links to an anti-Semitic website has shaken up the contest, drawing condemnation from seemingly everyone involved in the race. The Alliance to Combat Extremism, a little-known nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, paid for the ad, which features Plame’s pupils replaced by spinning swastikas and alleges she is a white supremacist.
“It’s awful. It’s a terrible ad. They need to take it down,” said Rep. Deb Haaland (D), who represents an adjacent district centered around Albuquerque and is supporting Leger Fernandez.
While there’s been little public polling of the race, the winner is effectively guaranteed a seat in Congress: Six-term Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat who left the seat open to run for Senate, won by 32 percentage points in 2018.
The sprawling district is roughly equal in size to New Jersey, and covers all of Northern New Mexico, including a slew of rural counties with major Hispanic populations; the ski town of Taos; the state capital of Santa Fe, where a combination of retirees and artists mean white progressives dominate local politics; Los Alamos, where federal research jobs have created one of the nation’s wealthiest communities; and in the west, the Navajo Nation reservation, where the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic have only exacerbated the long-standing abject poverty faced by the Native American population.
The primary electorate is almost certain to be majority-Hispanic, with white progressives making up the other key voting bloc in the district. While about one-fifth of the district’s population is Native American, the coronavirus is likely to drive the Native population’s already-low turnout rates even lower.
“The strongest candidate will be the one that can combine the Anglo liberal vote in Santa Fe with the Hispanic vote,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who was the first person to ever hold the district and won reelection seven times.
The divide between the candidates might be best illustrated by their fundraising bases: Plame’s fame in liberal circles ― the Bush administration leaked her identity to a conservative journalist after her then-husband, Amb. Joseph Wilson, questioned the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq ― has helped her raise over $2 million. (Scooter Libby, a top aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, was eventually convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in relation to the investigation. Trump pardoned Libby in 2018.)
Leger Fernandez, meanwhile, has banked just under $1.3 million. But while Plame has raised the overwhelming majority ― roughly 89%, according to OpenSecrets ― of her money from out-of-state, Leger Fernandez has raised about two-thirds of her cash from New Mexicans.
With the candidates unable to engage in a typical schedule of parades, meet-and-greets and in-person forums, Plame has used her cash advantage to air more ads than the other candidates, often highlighting her CIA background. One shows her completing an obstacle course.
“We need her national security experience to fight the coronavirus,” her brother says as footage of Plame vaulting over obstacles and crawling under barbed wire appears on-screen.
Plame also argues her political celebrity could help her bring back federal cash to a state with the 47th-highest median income in the country. “I’ll get my phone calls returned,” she said. “I know how Washington works and how it doesn’t work.”
In a state where Hispanics and Native Americans often trace their ancestry back hundreds of years ― Haaland said she was a 35th-generation New Mexican ― Leger Fernandez, the daughter of a state senator, hasn’t been shy about highlighting her status as a lifelong New Mexican.
“Like many, my family has been making tamales for generations,” Leger Fernandez says at the start of one ad. Another ad highlights her work as an Acequia commissioner, helping manage community-built irrigation systems critical to farming and ranching systems in the state.
At the same time, Leger Fernandez also has the endorsements of a slew of Democratic interest and advocacy groups, many of them eager to elect an additional Latina to Congress. The Sierra Club, the Working Families Party, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and End Citizens United have all endorsed Leger Fernandez. Support from these groups, and especially television ads form BOLD PAC, has kept Plame from gaining a dominating edge over Leger Fernandez on television.
But the ad that has generated the most controversy in the race hasn’t aired on television at all. The 45-second spot from the Alliance to Combat Extremism, a nonprofit founded by a Democratic operative who previously worked at The Israel Project, ran on Facebook last week and rehashed a controversy over Plame linking to a white supremacist website that alleged Jewish involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Plame has apologized for sharing the links.
“It’s vile. It’s disgusting,” Plame said of the spot. Of allegations she was anti-Semitic, Plame responded: “They’re completely false, and I’ve addressed them multiple times in multiple forums.”
Ian Sugar, the group’s executive director, declined to be interviewed. “We decided to become involved because Valerie Plame poses a real unique threat — combining bigotry with celebrity,” he wrote in an email. “Moving forward in accordance with our mission, we may become involved in other races where extremist candidates traffic in bigotry, intolerance, and hate.” (Facebook’s ad archive indicates the group has also run ads criticizing Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.)
The ad, which Facebook removed over the weekend, has frustrated allies of Leger Fernandez, who believe the over-the-top nature of the ad made it more difficult to effectively attack Plame on the issue. Last week, a top official at BOLD PAC appeared to signal to outside groups to attack Plame on the topic.
Leger Fernandez took a careful approach. She called the ad “extremely offensive and sexist,” but said it was fair to question Plame about her past anti-Semitic comments.
“I think the press and others have the right to ask her about that, and to raise those issues in a way that is respectable,” Leger Fernandez said.
Daniel Marans contributed reporting.