District 2 Republican candidates try to set themselves apart on immigration
State Rep. Marlinda Garcia (right) discusses health care issues with New London Hospital clinical nurse manager Melanie Bleazard and community servies Vice President Karen Zurheide during a visit to the hospital on Tuesday, August 26, 2014. (Alan MacRae / for the Monitor)
Gary Lambert makes calls to voters from his campaign headquarters in Nashua on Monday. (Elizabeth Frantz / for the Monitor)
Jim Lawrence files for office earlier this year. (Geoff Forester / Monitor staff)
The United States’s southern border is more than 2,000 miles away from New Hampshire, but the flood of immigrants across that line in recent months has dominated debate in the 2nd Congressional District’s Republican primary.
The first attack ad this primary? Former state senator Gary Lambert accused state Rep. Marilinda Garcia of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The first line to get applause at a candidates’ debate in Rindge last month? Former state representative Jim Lawrence pledged that his first action if elected, would be to “finish the fence, augment the border patrol where necessary, use the National Guard where required, to secure the border.”
Lambert, Garcia and Lawrence are vying for the party nomination to face incumbent Rep. Annie Kuster in November. That race is projected to be one of the more fiercely fought in the nation, with Kuster seen as vulnerable, and national PACs and parties poised to spend lots of money on both sides.
The three Republican candidates offer different personal backgrounds but toe a similar line on immigration and on most issues.
“We’re hard pressed to see immigration as a local issue here, to be sure,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “For conservative New Hampshire Republicans who will dominate next Tuesday’s primary, immigration is nonetheless a very important issue to them. In the media they consume – talk radio, Fox News – clearly it’s an issue that’s first and foremost in conservative news media. When you take this against a backdrop where clearly, all three candidates in the 2nd (Congressional) District primary agree on more than they disagree, it’s all the more reason for one of them to seize on it as an issue in which they think they can reasonably make a distinction.”
Garcia, 32, has been in the state Legislature for eight years, representing Salem. She’s a professional orchestral harpist and music teacher at private schools in the region. Her mother is Italian-American, and her father comes from a Spanish-American family that has lived in the Southwest for generations.
She’s garnered a deck full of PAC endorsements, as well as national attention from the press and the GOP, which named her a “rising star” in January.
Lambert, whose mother was also an immigrant, is a Nashua lawyer who recently retired after a 35-year career with the Marines. He has been the most dominant fundraiser in the race so far, with about $172,000 in contributions more than Garcia.
Lawrence was the last candidate to enter the primary. By Aug. 20, he had raised almost $40,000, mostly from a $25,000 loan he gave to himself.
Despite all of the focus on immigration, the three Republican contenders agree: Secure the border and don’t give anyone amnesty.
Garcia defends her signature on a resolution at the 2013 National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, as a plan to address the illegal immigrants who are already in the country once the border is secure.
The resolution said, in part, “legalizing the undocumented population lets us know who is living within our nation’s borders and allows our public safety representatives and first responders to focus time and resources on criminal elements intent on threatening our nation, citizens, freedoms, and way of life.”
In a meeting with the Monitor this summer, she said she was “skeptical of comprehensive reform” on this and other issues.
“It usually means some good things and some things I could not support. Then you’re in a position to either support it in the name of getting something done and you’re a traitor, or you vote against it and then you’re an obstructionist and part of the do-nothing Congress,” she said. “What I would love to see, in immigration and in health care, are targeted reforms, individual legislation to resolve specific issues,” including reforms to the visa system, she said.
Lambert has particularly attacked her signature on the resolution as offering amnesty to immigrants in the country illegally.
“Legalizing the undocumented population: If that’s not amnesty I don’t know what is,” he said at a debate.
He later added, “If we secure the border, I am willing to have a discussion about all the folks that are illegal. Let’s find out who they are, how many there are, what it’s going to cost to move them back to their home country or whatever we’re going to do. But until we secure the border, we cannot have that discussion.”
Garcia replied that that is the same as her position.
“First priority is . . . protecting and securing our border,” she said. “Those that came into the country illegally should not be granted citizenship. . . . On the margins you have citizenship, and then you have deportation. In between that, there are many reforms that are specific, realistic and pragmatic to deal with the 12 million illegal immigrants we have in our country right now.”
Despite her response to the attacks, as well as prominent state Republicans such as former speaker of the House Bill O’Brien who have endorsed Garcia and are calling for Lambert to stop airing ads on the issue, the accusation is probably sticking with some voters, Scala said.
“I don’t think they would be criticizing Lambert for running these ads if it’s not resonating with some Republican primary voters,” he said.
The negative back-and-forth may have unintended consequences for the two, he added.
“One thing to watch over the next week: The candidate who’s been out of this conversation by and large is Jim Lawrence. He has nowhere near the resources the other two have . . . but I’m curious to see if the other two continue to hammer each other over the next week, could that negativity make voters look elsewhere?”
The most recent statewide poll showed Kuster still has an edge over each of the three Republican contenders, but a narrow one. If the general election were held now, Kuster would beat Garcia 39 percent to 36 percent, Lambert 41 percent to 35 percent, and Lawrence 40 percent to 32 percent. About 25 percent of voters in all three scenarios said they didn’t know yet who they would choose.
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)