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In N.H., Marilinda Garcia Offers Test for New-Look GOP

In N.H., Marilinda Garcia Offers Test for New-Look GOP

By Scott Conroy - September 16, 2014

SALEM, N.H. -- If a Republican political operative were to dream up an ideal GOP congressional candidate for 2014, the image might look something like Marilinda Garcia. 

Running for a U.S. House seat in New Hampshire’s 2nd District, Garcia is young, Hispanic and female in a party that often skews too old, too white and too male.  

That she is cerebral, telegenic and refreshingly unpretentious makes her an especially intriguing candidate.  

First elected as a state representative when she was just 23, Garcia admits that her learning curve has been steep in a state where it often feels like every other person you meet is running for office. 

“It’s a low barrier to entry mostly because of fundraising,” Garcia said of her start in New Hampshire politics, adding that a credible campaign can be run here on a $1,000 budget. “I wasn’t exactly sure of how everything worked in terms of parliamentary process and leadership positions, policy, all of these things.” 

The daughter of a Spanish-American father and a mother who emigrated from Italy, Garcia has a personal background atypical of someone who became a public official before she could rent a car at the adult rate.  

She is a graduate of both Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the New England Conservatory of Music and supplements the distinctively modest $100 per year compensation package she earns in Concord by providing harp lessons at exclusive New England private schools.   

Now 31 and engaged to be married this winter, Garcia is the grizzled veteran in her campaign office, where the team of 20-something politicos looks more like a college newspaper staff.   

Though Garcia’s immediate appeal is undeniable, the complication for Republicans is that she is also a dream candidate for Democratic opposition researchers.  

Running against incumbent Democrat Ann McLane Kuster in a district that leans leftward, Garcia is an arch-conservative whose uncompromising positions on a range of issues benefited her in the competitive GOP primary she won last week. But those same positions threaten to become her undoing in November.  

And that’s what makes her candidacy so interesting.  

As the national Republican Party looks for ways to expand its appeal without compromising its principles, Marilinda Garcia will provide a case study of how a GOP hardliner -- who doesn’t look anything like the caricature that label calls to mind -- can fare in a tough race.  

Three days after her 22-point Republican primary thrashing of former state Sen. Gary Lambert -- who started the campaign as the clear favorite -- Garcia sat down with RealClearPolitics here in her hometown at a Barnes & Noble just a few hundred yards from the Massachusetts border. 

That she arrived to the interview without a single aide accompanying her was unusual for a general election candidate seeking a U.S. House seat, but Garcia exudes a calmness about being on the record that is rare in high-level politicians.  

She purports to have developed a thick skin but acknowledged that nothing she has done in state politics will have prepared her for the onslaught that Democrats are about to foist upon her.  

“Frankly, it’s a morbid curiosity,” Garcia said when asked if she is ready for the deluge of negative ads. “I don’t know what they’re going to say about me. I mean, look, they’ve already done ‘the extremist,’ so I know there will be all of that silliness. But otherwise, who knows? It’s scary.”   

In their efforts to paint her as out of the mainstream in this largely secular and moderate district, Democrats have plenty of fodder from which to cull. Two years ago, for instance, when the Republican-controlled New Hampshire House voted overwhelmingly to keep same-sex marriage legal in the state, Garcia was among the dissenters.  

But it was the manner in which she expressed her opposition that would likely draw the most scrutiny in the “Live Free or Die” state  -- where a recent poll showed that 60 percent of voters now support legalized same-sex marriage, while only 29 percent oppose it.  

In an interview at the time with the Concord Monitor, Garcia expressed her belief that gay couples should not be allowed to marry since they cannot “unite biologically.”  

"A same-sex couple cannot thus unite, therefore the state has no interest in regulating their relationship," she continued. "The symbolic message of inclusion for same-sex couples in an institution that makes no sense for them would be coupled with another message: That marriage is about the desires of adults rather than the interests of children." 

Democrats also are jumping at opportunities to paint Garcia as a proponent of extreme partisanship. During a debate earlier this year, the candidate was asked if she would vote to impeach President Obama.  

“I would,” she said. “He has many, many impeachable offenses, it seems to me, such as his disregard for our Constitution.”

These days, Garcia is strumming a softer tune, telling RCP that while she is inclined to believe that Obama has indeed overstepped his constitutional authority, her vote to impeach him would depend “on what the outcome of the process was.”  

Asked whether she would vote in favor of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending plan, Garcia sidestepped the question entirely. 

“That’s sort of old news at this point,” she said. “We’ll see. I have to look at it.” 

And in the interview, Garcia emphasized that she is not “at all” running on social issues, adding that the only reason they ever come up is when liberals use them as a political wedge.  

“They like to paint everyone as crusading extremists when they’re the ones that actually push the envelope and want to drag that into the debate,” she said. “If you want to be a one-issue voter, that’s your right. But overall, I’ve never met a candidate that I agree with 100 percent either.” 

Democrats, suffice it to say, are not buying this more moderate version of Garcia, as they highlight her opposition to the Violence Against Women Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and abortion rights. 

The Kuster campaign’s first attack ad of the general election showcased footage of Garcia hugging Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who traveled to New Hampshire to campaign on her behalf the weekend before the primary.  

"No amount of post-primary misdirection or Koch Brothers coaching changes the fact that Marilinda Garcia is a dangerously extreme, conservative candidate who is to the far right of her own party,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesperson Julie McClain. “Across the board, she supports fringe Tea Party policies that would be devastating for New Hampshire women, seniors, students, and their families.”

Garcia’s general election campaign got off to a shaky start late last week.  

A staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act, she generated local headlines by initially declining to say in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio how she receives her own health insurance coverage. (Her campaign later clarified that Garcia is covered through a short-term plan that is outside the ACA’s network.) 

State Republican officials acknowledge privately that Garcia’s occasional unsteadiness under fire could be her undoing.  But on the whole, GOP power brokers seem more impressed with Garcia’s promise than they are nervous that she could implode.   

One longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist told RCP that while Garcia is “very young” and “kind of acts it sometimes,” her generally unflappable demeanor has worked to her benefit.

“She is mature beyond her years, yet with this naiveté that lets her come into this without any preconceived notions of how the campaign should be,” the strategist said. “They’re not going to be able to get under her skin.” 

Among Garcia’s fans is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who met her for the first time during his trip to New Hampshire last week and may soon be ringing her phone off the hook to seek her support in his all-but certain 2016 presidential campaign.  

In an interview with RCP, Paul called Garcia a “wonderful, new young face to the party.” 

“I think that so much of what blocks us to certain populations is that we haven’t appeared open enough, and I think when you have a candidate who is Hispanic and young and a woman, I think all of that’s great,” Paul said.  

Whether or not she tops Kuster in November, national Republicans are likely to hold Garcia up as a model when it comes time to recruit the next round of candidates.  

As for her own career advancement in national politics, Garcia denies having any grand ambitions. 

“I’m not one of those ladder-climbers that plans everything out, because I think, one, it sets you up for disappointment,” she said. “Two, I think it makes you sort of myopic about something and you miss out on a lot of opportunities that could come up.”  

But for the next seven weeks, at least, the task in front of Garcia is clear.  

With more tough ads to withstand and one-on-one debates against a seasoned national legislator on the horizon, the final general election sprint will test her like never before.  

As she took a few more sips of her venti herbal tea, Garcia said she intends to avoid the always-on-message approach that party graybeards in Washington no doubt want her to take.  

“Do you really want everyone running for office talking in the same sound bite, using the same talking point?” she said. “I think that’s what’s frankly disillusioning about politics. So to the extent I can get my message across and be myself, that’s what I’m going for.”

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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