Garcia is GOP Rising Star, But is She Going Too High Too Soon?

Nathan L. Gonzales January 21, 2014 · 9:00 AM EST

Last summer, the Republican National Committee promoted Marilinda Garcia as one of the party’s Rising Stars. But her next challenge looks like winning a Republican primary for a seat in Congress.

Garcia was first elected to the New Hampshire state House in 2006, when she was 23 years old. She lost re-election two years later but quickly bounced back to win a special election in 2009 and re-election two more times.

Now 31 years old, Garcia is setting her sights a little higher.

“I’ve worked hard in the state legislature but the federal government is being an obstacle,” she said during a recent interview, citing the Affordable Care Act as particularly frustrating. At the end of November, Garcia announced her campaign for New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District against Democratic Rep. Ann McLane Kuster. The Rothenberg Political Report rates the race as one of the three dozen most competitive races in the country that could decide which party controls the House of Representatives next year.

Stereotyped as a party of and for aging, white men, Republicans could see Garcia as part of a remedy for diversity. But she isn’t particularly comfortable being shoved into that box. “I don’t ascribe to identity politics,” Garcia said. But, at the same time, she embraces her heritage. “I’m half Latino, half Italian, and all American.” She was born in Boston to an Italian-American mother and Spanish-American father, and grew up in Salem, New Hampshire, less than an hour north on I-93.

While some national Republicans are anxious to promote Garcia as a fresh (and more diverse) face within the party, some GOP strategists don’t believe this year is the right time nor the right race for her to move up. They believe she is too conservative for the 2nd District, which leans slightly Democratic. Barack Obama carried the district in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections by considerable margins.

In addition, Republicans already had a well-regarded candidate in the 2nd District race: former state senator Gary Lambert.

Now Lambert and Garcia are set to face off in the Sept. 9 primary, which should offer one of the starkest contrasts of any race in the country. Lambert is a patent attorney, former Marine Corps prosecutor who served in Iraq and a single term in the New Hampshire legislature. Garcia is an accomplished harpist (along with her sister, who also serves in the Legislature) with degrees from Tufts University, New England Conservatory of Music, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Marilinda has worked as an adjunct professor and consultant and is in her fourth term in the state House.

“I’m running as a new generation conservative,” said Garcia, who understands that the first step in her campaign is raising a ton of money. Lambert raised nearly $174,000 through September and got a head start while Garcia just got started a few weeks ago for a race that could cost her campaign between $1 and $3 million.

Being a Latina isn’t an automatic asset in a district where just 3 percent of the population is Hispanic. But Garcia has a couple of opportunities to expand her fundraising base beyond New Hampshire.

As an RNC Rising Star and one of Governing magazine’s 12 state legislators to watch this year, Garcia needs to use those platforms to stand out among the hundreds of other congressional candidates running around the country. 

She also received some national attention when a Democratic legislator made some offensive and sexist comments to his younger, attractive colleague, including comparing Garcia to Kim Kardashian. When asked for an apology, he doubled-down and apologized to Kardashian. 

“This is the unfortunate reality in politics these days...and why some people don’t get involved,” Garcia said. But one of the biggest questions is whether she can turn these opportunities into money and votes.

Only time will tell whether Garcia can raise the money necessary to compete and win competitive primary and general elections. But if, or when, she does, there is little doubt she’ll be thrust onto a much larger national stage of a party looking to promote some ethnic, generational, and gender diversity.