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January 30. 2014 9:23PM

Fergus Cullen: Marilinda Garcia already twisting Democrats in knots

You can tell how much of a threat Democrats consider Salem state Rep. Marilinda Garcia by the ferocity with which they attacked her when Garcia announced plans to run against Congresswoman Annie Kuster.

“Another Radical Ideologue Steps In to Carry Bill O’Brien’s Tea Party Torch,” screamed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Bill O’Brien + Kim Kardashian = Marilinda Garcia,” tweeted Manchester Democratic state Rep. Peter Sullivan. Kuster herself fired off a fundraising email citing Garcia by name.

Considering that the usual response when a little-known legislator announces plans to run against an incumbent is to ignore the challenger, the Democrats’ reaction was completely over the top.

Democrats hit the nuclear button because in their world, a candidate like Garcia simply should not exist. Young, female, Latina, smart, experienced – and conservative? Impossible. Cognitive dissonance. Heads exploding. Some Democrats apparently resent that on top of being qualified, Garcia is also pretty, slim, and fashionable. Put the package all together and you have what nobody objective can deny is an attractive candidate.

Garcia, 31, grew up in Salem, where she was homeschooled and completed high school requirements by 16. She aspired to become an orchestral harpist. She played with the Boston Youth Symphony and toured internationally. Enrolling at Tufts University and the New England Conservatory of Music, Garcia earned two bachelors degrees. Orchestra jobs are a dog-eat-dog world, though. Harpists hold chairs for decades. Besides, Garcia told me with a smile, “There’s a lot of politics in music.”

She became a harp instructor, holding adjunct faculty positions at Phillips Exeter Academy, Saint Paul’s School, and Gordon College. Today Garcia earns her living teaching the harp and consulting with a cybersecurity company. She became engaged on New Year’s Eve.

In 2006, at age 23, Garcia filed as one of 33 candidates running for 13 seats to represent Salem and Windham in Concord and got elected. Two years later, while attending Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on a full scholarship, Garcia narrowly lost her re-election bid, but came back months later to win a special election and returned to Concord. She was re-elected in 2010 and 2012.

In Concord, Garcia established a record as a mainstream conservative and avoided controversy and missteps. She became co-chair of the House Republican Alliance, the conservative group that led the effort to eliminate an $800 million deficit by reducing spending. She has focused her own legislative efforts on regulatory reform and bringing innovation and transparent pricing to health care.

Garcia kept encountering the same problem: Obama administration policies are obstacles making things worse, and Kuster is complicit with the administration’s agenda.

Garcia’s combination of demographics, degrees, and experience make her the antidote to the charge that the Republican Party is the party of middle-aged white guys. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus spotlighted Garcia as one of the party’s rising stars. The non-partisan Governing Magazine named her one of just 12 legislators to watch in 2014 from across the country.

Certainly her candidacy complicates the Democratic playbook about a supposed war on women. Garcia’s primary opponent, former state Sen. Gary Lambert of Nashua, is also well-qualified. And he’s another middle-aged white guy — precisely the profile of Republican candidates who struggle to get 50 percent of the vote. Many in the party think Garcia has a better shot of getting the few extra percentage points needed to win a general election.

Running for Congress in a swing district is big step up from running for state rep in a reliably Republican district. Garcia does not yet speak in the practiced soundbites of a candidate who is answering the same question for the fortieth time. Today she will report having raised $41,000 for her campaign in less than six weeks. If Garcia is going to make this a competitive race, she’ll need to attract support from national Republicans who think the party needs a lot more elected officials in the mold of U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, in politics the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Democrats are talking a lot about Marilinda Garcia for good reason: They’re worried.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com and followed @FergusCullen. Cullen and Garcia serve on a board of directors together.


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