HANOVER, N.H. — On paper, Marilinda Garcia is the antidote for what ails the Republican Party: namely, she’s not an old white man.
The candidate for New Hampshire's second district is a 31-year-old woman with a multicultural heritage. So the Republican National Committee is touting her as one of its new rising stars in an attempt to shed its image as stuffy and out-of-touch with today’s youngest voters.
But to start the healing process, Garcia will first have to eke out a victory in one of the closest congressional races in the country.
Make no mistake; Garcia's beliefs are as conservative as they come. But she delivers her sharp critiques of President Obama and big government with a measured, congenial tone. To her supporters, that's a refreshing change of pace from the rhetorical bomb-throwers who populate Washington.
Republican congressional candidate Marilinda Garcia at her primary election night party on Sept. 9, 2014. (Marilinda Garcia/Facebook)
The daughter of a Spanish-American father and a first-generation Italian immigrant mother, Garcia was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2006 at the age of 23—as a recent graduate of Tufts University and the New England Conservatory of Music, where she was an accomplished harpist.
Even though she's now on the national political radar, Garcia said she didn't run for office just to climb the ladder.
"Actually, I don't like politics at all," she said during an interview on the campus of Dartmouth College. "It's really a passion for public service. So the thought of working on a campaign to help elect someone that I thought represented my values was the initial impetus. And then someone suggested, 'Why don't you consider running?' And I thought, 'OK, I can figure out how that works.'"
She's had to learn quickly. Since winning the GOP primary on Sept. 9, she's been locked in a tight race with freshman Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D).
Though she's already been tapped as an up-and-comer by national Republicans, she faces an uphill battle to win her race. The political environment favors Republicans this November, but voters in the second district tilt Democrat. Kuster and her allies have used Garcia's staunch conservative views to paint her as out of touch.
"She is on the extremes," said Julie McClain, communications director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "I would say she is not representative of the values that are traditionally ascribed to millennials."
Polling has been volatile in the race, but most surveys show Kuster ahead. After sitting out the race, the National Republican Congressional Committee is reportedly making a last-minute advertising push to help Garcia across the finish line.
Republican challenger Marilinda Garcia, left, listens as Democratic incumbent Annie Kuster answers a question during a live televised debate for the 2nd District Congressional seat hosted by WMUR, the New Hampshire Union Leader, The New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014. (Jim Cole/AP Photo)
Garcia's race is also a test for the Republican Party's rebranding efforts. The GOP believes it needs young candidates to attract young voters, but the party has been less enthusiastic about embracing major policy changes to accomplish that goal. The outcome of the race will indicate whether the problem for Republicans is the message, or the messenger.
Democrats have cited a litany of Garcia's statements made during her bruising GOP primary battle to argue she's too hard-line for her district. They pounced after a February debate, in which she said she would vote to impeach President Obama.
"That's not actually on the table at all," Garcia told Fusion in response. "I think that's something that people try to bring up as a wedge issue."
Democrats also say Garcia's opposition to same-sex marriage puts her out of step with Granite Staters and young voters alike. In 2012, she supported a failed effort to repeal New Hampshire's same-sex marriage law.
Despite that, Garcia isn't changing her stance. "It's about the government and the state changing the definition of marriage," she said. "I don't support the government changing the definition."
But the issue has proved to be a lingering headache for Garcia's campaign. She had to apologize last week for plagiarizing part of a floor speech from the same-sex marriage debate two years ago.
Even though Garcia's contemporaries might not see eye-to-eye with her on many issues, she says one of her main goals is to get apathetic young people involved in politics by building consensus.
"I would say millennials are just looking for answers and solutions," she said. "We're suffering the consequences of … gridlock, inaction, and problems we are facing now."
While Garcia's supporters tout her youth, Democrats have used that against her, too. Kuster earlier this month lashed out at Garcia's record on women's issues, such as her opposition to the Violence Against Women Act and Paycheck Fairness Act.
“I don’t know if it’s because she’s never worked," Kuster told the Concord Monitor. "She’s 31 years old living at home, and maybe that’s it, she’s never been paid an unfair wage."
Garcia called the attack "petulant."
She has lobbed attacks at Kuster, as well. Garcia slammed her for supporting unpopular Obama policies and called her uninformed, especially for appearing baffled over the location of Benghazi during an event last year.
Republican candidates who won Tuesday's state primary for New Hampshire's top seats, from left, Frank Guinta, 1st Congressional District, Walt Havenstein, governor, Scott Brown, U.S. Senate and Marilinda Garcia 2nd Congressional District pose for a photo following a GOP "Unity Breakfast" Friday, Sept. 12, 2014 in Manchester, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP Photo)
The back-and-forth attacks have taken a toll on both candidates: each has a negative favorability rating. Despite the messy campaign, top Republicans are standing behind Garcia.
Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton appeared with Garcia at a town hall on foreign policy at Dartmouth on Oct. 15. Bolton's political action committee spent money on ad attacking Kuster
"I thought she [Garcia] represented the kind of Republican candidate we needed to see in the House and the Senate who put a priority on foreign and defense policy," Bolton said during an interview with Fusion.
Michelle Knesbach, president of the Dartmouth College Republicans, said that win or lose, having more candidates like Garcia is important for the party.
"I get a lot of comments like, 'Wow you're a young female and president of College Republicans, how did that happen?'" she told Fusion. "Having a candidate, especially like Garcia, to point to … will be really important to changing the image of the Republican Party."
For all the talk of being a new face for the GOP, Garcia said she is not consumed by what her election may or may not mean for the future of the party.
"I think both parties have big problems, and whatever, I'm just trying to be part of the change, so here I am."
Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.