Control of the New Mexico House of Representatives hangs in the balance in November, and in the thick of it all is Sarah Maestas Barnes, a 34-year-old Albuquerque attorney and first-time candidate running to represent House District 15.

Maestas Barnes has been singled out by many local and national Republicans as a candidate to watch in the party’s bid to elect a Republican majority to the state house for the first time in 60 years. Currently, 37 Democrats and 33 Republicans serve in the House.

The Future Majority Project, a Republican group co-chaired by Gov. Susana Martinez, named Maestas Barnes as one of their “14 in ‘14 Races to Watch,” according to a press release.

She said the potentially historic implications of her race against incumbent Democrat Emily Kane are exciting, but not her motivation for running.

“The ‘Republicans vs. Democrats’ fight is another group’s fight,” she said. “My priority is to do what’s best for New Mexico.”

If elected

Maestas Barnes cites concern for the state’s future as her main concern. She said experiences she has had raising her daughters, as well as experiences as a lawyer, are the main factors that influenced her.

She said that one of her priorities is to increase access to early childhood education in New Mexico.

“I’ve seen the benefits that my own children have had with having access to these early childhood education centers,” she said. “Some of the research that I’ve read really indicates to me that that is one of the few ways that we can really break the cycle of poverty in New Mexico.”

Maestas Barnes said she has seen first-hand that the state’s education system doesn’t produce workers with skills that meet the hiring needs of some of the state’s businesses. Doing legal work for her family’s engineering firm, T&D Services, she said it was difficult to find people qualified to do the kind of work the company needed.

According to its website, the company “[provides] engineering design services for electric utilities in the southwestern United States.”

“The workforce that’s available to small business owners in New Mexico is worrisome for the future,” she said. “That’s why we really need to focus in on education and make sure we create a workforce that is adequately prepared.”

More than $100,000 in campaign funds

Maestas Barnes is only one of five candidates running for the state House to have raised more than $100,000 in campaign funds. Her opponent, Kane has raised $125,880, while Maestas Barnes reported $100,266 in donations, according to campaign finance documents filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State ). GOPAC, a conservative nonprofit organization that boasts former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele as one of it’s past chairmen, named the House District 15 election one of its top ten races to watch in New Mexico and has donated to Maestas Barnes’s campaign.

UNM Political Science professor Tim Krebs said because large GOP groups have stated their interest in the race already, it means the people in the organizations believe the election is a winnable one.

“Political experts have this race on their watch list so people expect it to be competitive,” Krebs said. “When people expect it to be competitive, more groups get involved, more money flows into the race and you get a fundamentally different race than what we typically find at the legislative level.”

Closer to the election, he said residents in District 15 can expect to be courted through direct mail, because television advertising is too inefficient for candidates to use in a local election.

UNM graduate and lawyer

Maestas Barnes graduated from UNM’s law school in 2005. She said she is the first member of her family to go to and graduate from college.

“Nobody in her family had received any type of professional degree, and [graduating from college] was no problem for her,” said Sanchez.

Maestas Barnes said works she an attorney for her own firm, Maestas Barnes Law, and Martone Law Firm in Albuquerque. According to the firm’s website, the company’s lawyers primarily focus on proving disability claims from people denied Social Security disability benefits.

Maestas Barnes said her legal work focused on representing “[people] with disabilities, small businesses and land grant communities.”

Previously, she worked for the Albuquerque law firm Butt, Thornton and Baehr PC, focusing on business law and workers compensation cases, according to a biography printed in the April 2010 newsletter from the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of New Mexico, an organization in which she was a board member.

Amanda Sanchez, a friend of Maestas Barnes, said before they met, she first heard of Maestas Barnes when they attended neighboring high schools. Sanchez attended Grants High School, while Maestas Barnes attended Laguna Acoma in Cibola County.

“We would always know who the top people were at the other high school,” Sanchez said.