RINDGE, N.H. — The total Hispanic population in the sprawling 2nd District hovers just above 3 percent, making it one of the least diverse House districts in the country. But Granite State Republicans could nominate a young Latina with star potential who's already earned plaudits from national conservatives.
At last week's Monadnock Debate on the campus of Franklin Pierce University, former state Rep. Marilinda Garcia, 31, was attacked like the front-runner ahead of New Hampshire's Sept. 9 primary.
Outside the auditorium, a flock of geese garnered more attention than any raucous sign-wavers for Garcia or anyone else on the stage — but the debate itself wasn't without fireworks. Garcia's opponents jumped on her relative inexperience, but they also attacked her on an issue that might surprise out-of-state voters.
Even in New Hampshire, thousands of miles away from the southern border, immigration has become a wedge in GOP primaries.
Gary Lambert, a Nashua attorney with 35-plus years of service in the Marine Corps who picked up the endorsement of a hometown newspaper on Monday, said immigration policy is an issue out on the campaign trail.
"I'm just telling you that out there in the 2nd District that issue is extremely important to the voters," Lambert said. "It comes up at almost every single meeting. It's one of the singular issues out there. Folks are very worried about the president and his executive amnesty plan."
The Republicans are vying to face incumbent Democratic Rep. Ann McLane Kuster in a race that is rated Leans Democratic by The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call. CQ Roll Call's inquiries to Kuster's official and campaign offices about her public schedule went unreturned.
But regardless of the nominee, a late primary means the Republican will have a mad rush to Election Day.
During that time, it will be worth watching how Kuster and her GOP opponent react to a anticipated move by President Barack Obama to expand deferred action for undocumented immigrants or other unilateral executive action on immigration, especially if it's before the primary.
FreedomWorks has endorsed Garcia, and she spoke at Conservative Political Action Conference and her record in the state House is undeniably conservative. But she doesn't always come across as a firebrand now — particularly on immigration, where she's being blasted in debates, on TV and through mailers for purportedly supporting "amnesty" for immigrants not legally in the United States.
Both during the debate and after in an interview with CQ Roll Call, Garcia articulated an immigration position somewhere in the vast expanse between unconditional amnesty and systematic deportation. Asked about her position on securing the border and sending undocumented immigrants home, she said: "I have advocated for those two things."
"You know, I have advocated to secure the border and I've said that any other reform is rendered useless and ineffective if we don't, in fact, secure the border. So that's number one," Garcia said. "Number two, obviously we will be sending people … be it the children right now that I think should be returned to their county of origin, and then once we grasp of really who is here, naturally that will be the case with that population as well."
When Garcia and Lambert sparred at the Aug. 19 debate, the third candidate on the stage, Air Force veteran and former state Rep. Jim Lawrence, drew applause from the crowd for criticizing the bickering.
"I think she's a fine person, but unlike me she hasn't had the opportunity to form a small business, to own her own home, to pay a mortgage, pay property taxes, make educational choices for her children," Lawrence said.
In an interview last week, Garcia was well-prepared for the age and experience criticism, with a line ready about signatories of the Declaration of Independence having been in their twenties.
"I've served for four terms in the state legislature. I have a lot of legislative experience and in terms of my life experience, I think a broad perspective is actually really important in solving any type of problem," Garcia said. "I think our generation has, has as much if not more concern about the future of our country, you know, in terms of urgency."
Lambert highlighted his own record when asked if everyone running in the GOP primary was qualified to serve in D.C.
"They're all qualified above Annie Kuster, OK. That being said, yes, I think I'm the most qualified," Lambert said. "Even if you take a look at it from raw facts: I have served my country for most of my life. I've served in combat in Iraq, I've served in the Ukraine, I've served in Russia ... spent a year in the Far East, so I think I bring a wide variety of experiences to bear if sent to Congress."
"If someone walks in from the Pentagon, they're not going to be able to snow me because I've been there, I've done it," Lambert said. "Probably I've done it longer than they have."
Garcia said she would look to make use of "all of the means available" including media to enhance her effectiveness as a freshman legislator, and as a young, Hispanic woman in the GOP, she would certainly have those chances.
"Frankly, if people are so upset about Congress right now, are those the ones with life experience, you know, maybe we need something new," Garcia said.
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