Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, will step into a big spotlight Tuesday evening when she delivers the nationally televised Republican rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address. But she won't necessarily have big shoes to fill.
The previous Republican rebuttal speeches in the Obama era have proved to be more of a curse than a prime-time steppingstone to success. Consider:
Bobby Jindal: deflated. Bob McDonnell: indicted. Paul Ryan: defeated. Mitch Daniels: departed. Marco Rubio: dehydrated.
McMorris Rodgers is a lower-profile politician than her recent predecessors, each of whose speeches were viewed, to varying degrees, through the prism of future presidential campaigns. McMorris Rodgers, 44, is not considered a potential 2016 presidential contender. But she is a rising GOP star as the No. 4 Republican in the Congressional leadership hierarchy.
The speaking role is a plum job—few members of Congress, even those in leadership, ever get to speak to the nation in a televised address—even if it hasn't necessarily worked out well for recent GOP messengers.
One inherent challenge for all who take the mic is that the president delivers his address in the packed and august chamber of the House of Representatives. The rebuttal is typically delivered in a sterile filming studio, with the speaker flanked by flags.
The 2009 GOP response came from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, but his botched and stilted delivery was widely panned and curbed his trajectory as a rising GOP star. McDonnell, the former Virginia governor who was indicted last week on charges of accepting illegal gifts, tried to alter this dynamic by delivering his 2010 reply to the Virginia House of Delegates. But such an effort hasn't been repeated.
Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, then widely believed to be a top-tier 2016 White House contender, paused in the middle of his speech to reach awkwardly for a sip of water. Rubio has since made light of the moment—even selling branded water bottles as a fundraiser—but the year that followed was his worst yet in Washington. Rubio guided a bipartisan immigration bill through the Senate, only to see it stall in legislative purgatory in the House, as the tea-party activists that fueled his rise have shifted away from him.
While McMorris Rodgers was tapped to deliver the official GOP rebuttal by Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, she'll have some competition for Republican attention. For the fourth straight year, a tea-party group is sponsoring its own rebuttal, to be delivered by conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. And Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who gave last year's tea-party reply, has said he'll deliver a personal response to Obama's speech as well.
Still, McMorris Rodgers' address will be the main GOP event, and the Washington state Republican is expected to lean heavily on her personal biography. The first in her family to graduate from college, Rodgers worked her way through Pensacola Christian College in Florida before returning to Washington, where she grew up working on the family's orchard near the Canadian border in Kettle Falls. She spent a decade serving in the Washington statehouse, rising to become the Republican leader, before she was elected to Congress in 2004.
McMorris Rodgers immediately ascended to the leadership table as the freshman representative on the Steering Committee, which doles out valuable committee assignments. She's slowly ascended since, rising to the No. 4 post, as chair of the House Republican conference.
Along the way, she gave birth to three children while serving in Congress—the first woman to ever do so. McMorris Rodger's eldest son has Down syndrome, and after his birth she founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus. The story holds particular appeal for the antiabortion movement, which has high hopes for McMorris Rodgers's nationally televised address
"She's a person who can communicate that better than almost anyone I know," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which presses to expand antiabortion laws. Dannenfelser, who has known McMorris Rodgers for years, said she doesn't know if the congresswoman will explicitly cite abortion politics—but she's hopeful.
"I hope that she will because I think it would be incomplete if she didn't," she said.
This article appears in the January 27, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.