When Democrat Tom Udall decided to run for US Senate, it opened up New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District seat for the first time in a decade.

Ben Ray Luján, who currently serves on the Public Regulation Commission, won a six-way primary in June and now faces Republican Dan East and Independent Carol Miller in the Nov. 4 general election.

We didn’t endorse Luján in the primary race and cited our concerns that Luján’s advantage in the contest stemmed from the deep political connections of his father, Speaker of the House Ben Luján. We also didn’t endorse him for PRC four years ago because we didn’t think he had either the qualifications or knowledge to do the position justice.

We endorse him now with some reservations, but far fewer than we might have expected. On the PRC, Luján has worked hard and emerged, along with Jason Marks, as one of the troubled body’s more progressive and active commissioners. And on the campaign trail, despite his ongoing advantage in terms of name recognition, money and, yes, family connections, Luján has taken nothing for granted. He has traveled the district repeatedly, his campaign has been accessible and positive and, over the last nine months, we believe Luján has made his case to the voters.

His time on the PRC has made Luján an enthusiastic proponent of the alternative energy solutions this state, and the nation, needs to embrace in the coming years. He is fully cognizant of the learning curve any freshman congressman will have, and we believe he is committed to learning and working hard for his constituents. He has pledged to continue Udall’s tradition of holding town halls when back in the state to keep in touch with 3rd District residents’ concerns. And we were pleased that Luján, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Highlands University just last year, is committed to furthering his education by pursuing a master’s degree and, down the road, tackling law school.

We also interviewed Independent Carol Miller, who we have found over the years to be a smart health-policy wonk with many years of experience working in Washington, DC. Given the many registered Independent voters in Santa Fe County, it’s conceivable Miller could dent Luján’s numbers and voters could inadvertently send to Congress Republican Dan East (Miller has played this role before, after all). This would be a mistake: East is a candidate who supports the war in Iraq and has yet to be convinced that global warming even exists. Further, neither East nor Miller have any experience as elected officials. While Luján’s experience may not be long-standing, he does, at least, have under his belt four years of representing people at that level.

Miller also has publicly raised as an issue Luján’s tenure on the PRC and his employment in the state Treasurer’s Office, both agencies plagued by Democratic corruption. Luján has never been connected, at all, to these scandals. And while it’s true, as Miller notes, that he didn’t ring a bell about them, neither did anyone else within the agencies. Guilty by association, or proximity, is a tactic at play in the presidential election as well, and not one to which we think voters should give credence.

But perhaps another deciding factor is that Luján, both on the PRC and the campaign trail, continues to exceed our expectations. The candidate we interviewed this month had more developed views and knowledge than the one we talked to last spring. At 36, Luján is young and relatively green as a policy maker, but he shows every sign that he could develop into a strong leader for a district he knows and about which he clearly cares.

Finally, though it’s not a deal-breaker, Luján’s election will mean that at least one member of New Mexico’s delegation will be Hispanic—which has not been the case for many years. We think it is fitting for New Mexico to represent the diversity of our state and the country in this way.

Wish Ben Ray Luján luck; he is probably on his way to Washington, DC. And keep an eye on him—we intend to.

Web extra: Watch Ben Ray Luján talk about presidential nominee Barack Obama: