When it comes to winning national offices and having an associated positive political image, it would seem that, notwithstanding questions of ideology, the Republican Party has three major challenges: its competitive disadvantage among women voters, its struggle to craft a message of conservatism that resonates with young people and young families, and the unpopularity of the congressional wing of the party. Arguably, these factors prevented the GOP and its nominee, Mitt Romney, from winning the White House in 2012, and they threaten the Republicans’ chances of taking back the presidency in 2016. However, these troubles are not primarily ideological in nature; they are issues of messaging, presentation, and image. The question facing the Republican Party is not “is conservatism relevant to the modern political era?” Rather, the question that the GOP should be asking, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, is: “How can Republicans articulate a compelling case for conservatism in order to survive as a national party?” Now, there may be some who would take issue with this question; if Republicans are poised to expand their majority in the U.S. House and possibly win a majority in the U.S. Senate, then how can its legitimacy or relevance as a national party even be called into question? The answer to this charge is relatively simple: the Republican Party could control both chambers of Congress, but without the law-signing authority of the presidency, its ability to enact conservative policy is still limited. Therefore, we return to the challenges obstructing the GOP’s presidential prospects: disadvantages among women and young voters, and the unpopularity of the congressional wing, especially the House Republican caucus. How can the party begin to overcome these challenges? This article will suggest that what the GOP may need is a prominent, young, female conservative, who can articulate the party’s message in a way that resonates with voters who are disillusioned with Republicans. And strangely enough, that woman can be found leading a very unpopular group: the House Republican caucus. She’s the chair of the House Republican Conference, and her name is Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
Many Americans were introduced to Rep. Rodgers for the first time this spring, when she delivered the official Republican response to President Obama’s state of the union address. Her speech was fairly well-received, with Sarah Pulliam Bailey writing that it “was more overtly religious and hinted at a term that has faded from Republican rhetoric in recent years: compassionate conservatism.” The decision to have Rodgers deliver the response, and the content of the speech itself, led Hannah Rosin to write a piece for Slate titled “Values Feminism,” in which she argued that “now, it’s Cathy McMorris Rodgers whom the party wants to highlight: ambitious, urbane, pen in one hand, baby in the other, having it all, all by herself.” Obviously, having Rep. Rodgers acting as a sort of messenger for the GOP is an advantage for the party, and helps counteract the negative stereotypes of Republicans as being primarily old, white, and male. But beyond her public relations work, is Rodgers aiming for something higher? After all, if the leadership hierarchy is any indication, she may be the party’s best chance at electing its first female Speaker of the House. Does she want it?
Rodgers is also being mentioned for other prominent political offices, with Robert Costa of the Washington Post writing this January that “talk of a possible veep slot in 2016 is in the air…” However, there are concerns that the congresswoman from Washington may not have the desire to do what is necessary to win the Speaker’s chair or a spot on the presidential ticket. Costa wrote that Rodgers has not “been a major policy leader in the House in the Paul Ryan mode, building a reputation with reporters and colleagues as a wonk and legislative power broker.” At the same time, the fact that Rep. Rodgers is the chair of the House Republican conference speaks extensively about her personal ambition. Politico‘s Jake Sherman wrote that the 2012 contest for that position “was the most bitterly fought of leadership races…and put [Georgia Rep. Tom] Price, a staunch conservative, against McMorris Rodgers, who many Republicans see as a rising star…” It is also important to note that Price had the support of Republican heavyweight Paul Ryan. Even before her election to Congress, McMorris Rodgers was a deft political operator; in 2002, she became Washington state’s first female House minority leader. In an article for National Journal, Sarah Mimmus wrote that “throughout her career, McMorris Rodgers has been dismissed by critics as a token woman, not a serious force within her party, someone who was thrust into the limelight by calculating party bosses just trying to improve the GOP’s image. But McMorris Rodgers’s record demonstrates that she has more to offer than that.”
Despite her clear skills in political maneuvering, McMorris Rodgers is often derided as just a public relations face for the Republican Party. And the congresswoman herself has spoken out about this criticism that seems to be uniquely aimed at female politicians, remarking at a conference in September that “it’s still common for women to wait to be asked to run for office.” Sarah Mimmus wrote that “when asked about her future in House Republican leadership, her male colleagues and friends don’t just discuss her successes or failures in evaluating McMorris Rodgers’s merit. They talk about her motherhood, citing three young children at home who take up so much time that she cannot possibly form the kind of tight-knit relationships with colleagues that she would need to get a promotion on Capitol Hill.” So, while she may get image-heavy responsibilities like delivering the response to the president’s state of the union this year, McMorris Rodgers may struggle to rise above her position as the conference chair for the House GOP, perhaps in spite of her political skills.
At the same time, however, it would be foolish to assume that McMorris Rodgers would be unable to make a bid for a leadership promotion in the distant, or even near, future. Her skills in fundraising, especially for female GOP candidates, could earn her a ruthlessly loyal faction of supporters within the House Republican caucus. In September, reporters at Politico noted that McMorris Rodgers held an event for almost 10 female Republican candidates, and the event was expected to raise more than $500,000, not to mention that it was attended by the highest-ranking Republican House members, including Speaker John Boehner.
Despite her skills in fundraising and maneuvering on Capitol Hill, Cathy McMorris Rodgers is not the Republican equivalent of Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. She lacks the ruthlessness that has come to characterize the first female Speaker of the House. Vanessa Grigoriadis, writing a profile of Pelosi for New York Magazine in 2009, described her subject as “kind of a Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, imperious with her power and relishing her ability to attack, dropping bombs like ‘If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their faces off.'” It’s difficult to imagine McMorris Rodgers, with her outward message of “compassionate conservatism,” even saying privately, “You have to rip their faces off.” However, this does not necessarily mean that McMorris Rodgers is soft and weak, willing to be passed over for promotions up the leadership chain. Her rise to power within the House GOP has been subtle, but swift; many voters still have no idea who she even is. But that will change soon, because Rep. Rodgers is on the crest of a wave of a new generation of Republicans, perhaps the party’s last best hope of remaining capable of winning the White House, and not just governorships and senate seats. Remember Rodgers’s comment at the conference: “It’s still common for women to wait to be asked to run for office.” Well, when it comes to the presentation of the party to new audiences, and when it comes to her own future within the House GOP, Cathy McMorris Rodgers may not wait to be asked.
Here is the video of Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in January: