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New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District has received so much national attention this fall that voters could be forgiven for thinking it’s the presidential primary — not the midterm election — taking place in November.

The reason is Marilinda Garcia, a Republican state representative challenging incumbent Ann Kuster, a Democrat. Last month, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas rallied voters on Garcia’s behalf, and next week former Republican diplomat John Bolton will appear with her at a town hall meeting on national security in Hanover. She has been profiled by national news organizations and received the endorsement of Mitt Romney.

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Garcia’s campaign has drawn enthusiastic support from young Republicans and equally intense criticism from the Democratic Party. Her rapid rise is the result of her own ambition and the GOP’s efforts to redefine itself. Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, says that Garcia is the antithesis of the image often attached to Republicans: white, male and well past middle age.

“By virtue of who she is — an attractive, articulate woman — she is a walking, talking answer to the Democratic criticism of the Republican Party,” Lesperance said.

Garcia, 31, is the daughter of an Italian-American mother and a Spanish-American father. She lives in Salem, N.H., and entered politics when she won a seat in the state Legislature at age 23. New Hampshire’s House of Representatives is huge, and retirees are common among its 400 members. Garcia stood out from her older, mostly male colleagues, something that she tried to minimize by dressing in dark colors and staying focused on why she was there.

“My modus operandi is to try to learn a bit first, go in there, figure out how things work, listen to people . . . but then be sure to be a voice, an advocate for the reasons and the policies that you ran in the first place,” she said in a recent interview.

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Garcia said that focus helped her build a professional reputation and, eventually, mount her congressional campaign against Kuster, 58, an attorney first elected to Congress in 2012. Kuster’s campaign is highlighting her work on behalf of veterans, seniors, and small-business owners while portraying Garcia as too closely aligned with the Tea Party movement.

At the time she was first elected, Garcia was pursuing a career as a professional harpist, a skill honed at Tufts University and the New England Conservatory of Music. She still performs and teaches harp, but Garcia’s professional path has shifted during her four terms in office. She won a fellowship to the Harvard Kennedy School, earning a master’s degree in public policy in 2010, and has worked in recent years for a cybersecurity firm.

“My modus operandi is to try to learn a bit first, go in there, figure out how things work, listen to people . . . but then be sure to be a voice,” Garcia says.
“My modus operandi is to try to learn a bit first, go in there, figure out how things work, listen to people . . . but then be sure to be a voice,” Garcia says.Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

She has built a following nationally among young Republicans and was named one of Republican National Committee’s “Rising Stars” — a group the RNC describes as “leaders shaping the future of our party.”

“She’s brought in new people. They’re energetic and committed, and it’s refreshing,” said Republican Donna Sytek, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and a longtime advocate for women in politics.

Garcia may look different from the Republican archetype, but her positions align with the party’s platform. She’s opposed to abortion and to new gun control laws and wants to “dismantle” the Affordable Care Act. She’s also an advocate for reducing regulations on small businesses in “efficient, targeted ways,” something she says appeals to many people she meets while campaigning. Garcia says paperwork and regulatory changes are common complaints, especially among farmers living in the state’s North Country.

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“This is their livelihood, and they feel that the government doesn’t trust them to be good stewards of their own environment,” she said.

Sytek described Garcia as a “true believer” in conservative causes, something that could bring out voters on Election Day.

“Those people turn out to vote,” she said. “The gun people, the prolife people. They love to vote for their candidates.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee maintains a website called extremegarcia.com and released an ad late last month charging that she’s too conservative for the district. The National Republican Congressional Committee is also paying attention to the race, producing ads that portray Kuster as out of touch with voters.

And national attention has been paid to local partisan spats, as when a Democratic activist compared Garcia to reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Garcia’s recent refusal to say how she received health insurance was also reported widely. (Her campaign later told the New Hampshire Union Leader that she purchases private, “short-term” insurance outside the federal exchange.)

“What I find in this campaign and in life in general is that if people want to hold something against you . . . they will. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Garcia said. “But if you’re just being the respectful, professional person that you are, that comes across.”

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So much outside attention can carry risks for a new candidate, said Lesperance, but Garcia hasn’t been overshadowed by her national champions so far.

“In New Hampshire, we want our candidates to be one of us,” Lesperance said. “If it looks too much like her campaign is the product of decisions made in D.C., that could be very damaging, but I don’t think that criticism has really held up in this case.”