Is Cathy McMorris Rodgers More Than a Token?

Her social-media and tech efforts are meant to boost the GOP, but will the highest-ranking woman in the House find the motivation to boost herself?

Chet Susslin
Sept. 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

Not long after Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers was elec­ted to the state Le­gis­lature, her ment­or, Mark Schoesler, traveled with her to Wash­ing­ton State Uni­versity for meet­ings in the dis­trict she now rep­res­ents. The pre­vi­ous few years had been a whirl­wind for the 25-year-old fresh­man Re­pub­lic­an. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers was not long out of col­lege when her fath­er got her a job on a polit­ic­al cam­paign. That quickly turned in­to a po­s­i­tion as a le­gis­lat­ive aide in the state House and then an ap­point­ment to her boss’s seat when he ran for the state Sen­ate. The new law­maker headed to WSU with Schoesler by her side.

While Schoesler, near­ing 40 and in his second term in the Le­gis­lature, at­ten­ded meet­ings, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers stayed out­side, en­ter­tain­ing his 15-year-old daugh­ter be­fore a foot­ball game.

For Schoesler, who is now minor­ity lead­er in the state Sen­ate, that scene is im­port­ant to the tale of Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s ca­reer. It il­lus­trates how per­son­able Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers is, and how eas­ily she relates to and charms young wo­men—the very type of voters her party needs to at­tract. She was “shy,” he said, “a very humble per­son, very down-to-earth” and will­ing to spend time talk­ing with a teen­ager while he spoke with con­stitu­ents and com­munity lead­ers in East­ern Wash­ing­ton’s hub of ag­ribusi­ness and re­search. Schoesler did not in­tend to den­ig­rate Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers by em­phas­iz­ing her in­ter­ac­tion with his daugh­ter over any le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment or demon­stra­tion of polit­ic­al skill. He didn’t think it might lead any­one to won­der wheth­er her peers in the Le­gis­lature thought she was a cap­able politi­cian, or if they in­stead saw her skills as bet­ter suited to child care.

Yet the story high­lights themes that have char­ac­ter­ized Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s en­tire ca­reer: her tend­ency to sit on the mar­gins in­stead of around the table, and the fre­quency with which her peers and polit­ic­al watch­ers re­mark upon her gender and her abil­it­ies as a moth­er (or, in this case, a babysit­ter) in­stead of her ac­com­plish­ments. It un­der­scores a repu­ta­tion for tak­ing a back­seat that she has nev­er been able to shed, and which has driv­en col­leagues to whis­per about token­ism and al­lies to as­sume she will nev­er rise above her cur­rent job as No. 4 in House lead­er­ship. Even in the face of suc­cess, her gender is giv­en cred­it for her po­s­i­tion, not her hard work or skill.

When Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers was floated as a po­ten­tial run­ning mate for Mitt Rom­ney in 2012, for ex­ample, the press and polit­ic­al ana­lysts alike fo­cused on her gender and her abil­ity to fit in bet­ter with the cam­paign than some of her fe­male col­leagues, such as Michele Bach­mann. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, for the re­cord, says that the Rom­ney cam­paign nev­er reached out to her, and she doesn’t be­lieve she was ever truly on its list of pos­sible run­ning mates. But her po­ten­tial can­did­acy was, non­ethe­less, dis­missed as noth­ing more than an op­por­tun­ity for Re­pub­lic­ans to tick off an item on their di­versity check­list, des­pite the law­maker’s eight-year re­cord on Cap­it­ol Hill, where she had already be­gun to climb the lead­er­ship lad­der.

Again, when she was se­lec­ted to re­spond to Pres­id­ent Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress earli­er this year, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers was seen as a di­versity pick, not the best per­son for the job. Some Re­pub­lic­ans and pun­dits hin­ted at token­ism, but Demo­crats came right out and said it, with Rep. Steny Hoy­er call­ing her se­lec­tion noth­ing more than a “trans­par­ent” ploy by the GOP to ap­peal to fe­male voters. One of her 2014 primary op­pon­ents even called it a “Miss Con­geni­al­ity” speech in both his cam­paign lit­er­at­ure and a ra­dio ad.

And 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.

Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers is easy to over­look, and, as her vis­it to WSU with Schoesler demon­strates, she of­ten makes it even easi­er. A dis­dain for self-pro­mo­tion and an ap­par­ent lack of am­bi­tion have cast a shad­ow over her polit­ic­al ca­reer—a ca­reer she of­ten planned to leave for something lower-pro­file. In­deed, al­most every time she moved up in Wash­ing­ton state or in Con­gress, it wasn’t be­cause she wanted a new job. It was be­cause she re­ceived a call. Most of­ten, that call came from an older, more polit­ic­ally ex­per­i­enced man, who was openly cal­cu­lat­ing the be­ne­fits of pro­mot­ing a young, in­tel­li­gent, hard­work­ing wo­man in a party that has been hammered for a lack of di­versity. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers truly is a con­veni­ent wo­man for the party to pro­mote, a di­versity win with an in­ter­est­ing back­ground and an abil­ity to stay on mes­sage.

But that’s a thin tale, one that’s too easy, too ob­vi­ous, and doesn’t tell the full story. The truth is, it’s pre­cisely these qual­it­ies that tail­or Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers to her House lead­er­ship job. Al­lies call Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers “un­as­sum­ing,” while col­leagues refer to her as “con­sensus-build­ing” and “con­cili­at­ory.” And those close to the 45-year-old con­gress­wo­man, at home and in the Cap­it­ol, say these traits are a de­lib­er­ate com­pon­ent of a well-thought-out strategy.

Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s will­ing­ness to take a back­seat has won over col­leagues across her con­fer­ence, from con­ser­vat­ives such as Rep. Thomas Massie of Ken­tucky to lead­er­ship al­lies like Tom Cole of Ok­lahoma. Even Demo­crats have little neg­at­ive to say about the highest-rank­ing wo­man in the Re­pub­lic­an House.

So why can’t she shake the per­ni­cious char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion that she is where she is only be­cause she’s a she?

CATHY MC­MOR­RIS RO­GERS nev­er saw her­self where she is today.

She left home in East­ern Wash­ing­ton to study in Flor­ida at Pensa­cola Chris­ti­an Col­lege, a small con­ser­vat­ive Baptist school that was not ac­cred­ited at the time. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers ma­jored in pre-law—not to go to law school, not to be­come a law­yer or to go on to a ca­reer in polit­ics, but to be a paralegal. Even her aca­dem­ic ad­viser thought she was crazy, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers re­calls.

Throughout her ca­reer, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers planned to live her life in the back­ground. But time and again, someone urged her to step out in front. Like so many of the wo­men she has re­cruited to run for Con­gress since, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers needed a nudge.

When Bob Mor­ton was look­ing for a cam­paign man­ager to as­sist in his first run for the state Le­gis­lature, he called Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s fath­er, a county Re­pub­lic­an Party chair­man. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers had no polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence, but she was young and smart and Wayne Mc­Mor­ris’s daugh­ter, so Mor­ton hired her and then kept her on as his le­gis­lat­ive as­sist­ant. “I hon­estly ima­gined my­self work­ing more be­hind the scenes,” Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers says. “Al­though, from the very be­gin­ning, Bob Mor­ton was al­ways en­cour­aging me: ‘Go rep­res­ent me at this meet­ing,’ ‘Go give this speech.’ You know, I was, like, ‘Huh?’ And I, I look back on it now and I think he saw something in me that I didn’t see in my­self, really.”

When Mor­ton ran for the state Sen­ate, he needed someone to take his place. Once again, Mor­ton called Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, and he per­suaded the re­luct­ant 25-year-old to ac­cept an ap­point­ment to his seat. And in 2002, when the party’s lead­er of 16 years, Clyde Bal­lard, de­cided to re­tire, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers listened to some of her col­leagues eager for a “new look”—as the state party chair­man put it at the time—and took down two mem­bers of the lead­er­ship to be­come the state House’s first fe­male minor­ity lead­er.

Des­pite her win, that same year she en­rolled at the Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton to get an M.B.A. so she could leave the Le­gis­lature al­to­geth­er and be­gin a busi­ness ca­reer.

But then, two years later, she got yet an­oth­er call. This time it was from Rep. George Neth­er­cutt, who had de­cided to run for the Sen­ate and urged Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers to take his place in Con­gress. Once again, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers thought to her­self: “Ah, I’m not sure that’s right for me.” But Neth­er­cutt re­cog­nized what all of the oth­er callers had as well: Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s pro­file would give her an ad­vant­age in the race.

“I’ll be frank. Without be­ing rancor­ous, it’s hard to run against a wo­man. It’s dif­fer­ent, I’ll say. I thought that might give her a little bit of edge,” says Neth­er­cutt, who even­tu­ally lost his bid to un­seat Sen. Patty Mur­ray.

But Neth­er­cutt and oth­er Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers in the state also saw a per­son­al story that would work well in a con­gres­sion­al race: a 34-year-old dis­trict res­id­ent who grew up in rur­al Wash­ing­ton and worked on her fam­ily’s farm be­fore tak­ing a job at Mc­Don­ald’s; a des­cend­ant of Ore­gon Trail-tra­vers­ing pi­on­eers; and the first in her fam­ily to gradu­ate from col­lege. “I just thought, if you don’t try, you’re guar­an­teed to lose,” Neth­er­cutt says.

That call per­suaded her to run. “It meant a lot for him to be­lieve in me,” Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers says now.

Neth­er­cutt had been right. Once again, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers won an elec­tion she hadn’t ex­pec­ted to be in. It was the first of many land­slide vic­tor­ies in the House.

JOHN BOEHNER SPOT­TED Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers early in her ca­reer on Cap­it­ol Hill. Then chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, he sought her out to join his pan­el. “She im­pressed him as be­ing en­er­get­ic, sin­cere, hard­work­ing, a team play­er, and someone people kind of re­late to very well,” Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel says.

Come 2008, Boehner had as­cen­ded to House minor­ity lead­er, and his lead­er­ship roster was dom­in­ated by white men, des­pite two straight elec­tions in which Re­pub­lic­ans had lost badly thanks in part to a widen­ing gender gap. Boehner and his then-chief of staff, Paula Nowakowski, de­cided they needed to add a wo­man to the team. They quickly turned to Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers to ask her to run for vice chair of the GOP Con­fer­ence.

She said yes—and ran un­op­posed.

Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers took over as vice chair­wo­man with a severely lim­ited budget and lofty goals, spe­cific­ally to help her party close the di­git­al di­vide after Barack Obama’s Web-savvy cam­paign in 2008. Even giv­en the con­straints of her budget and of hav­ing a “vice” in front of her title, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers ex­pan­ded the party’s di­git­al im­print, sig­ni­fic­antly in­creas­ing the GOP’s on­line pres­ence with a con­test pit­ting mem­bers against one an­oth­er in a “New Me­dia Chal­lenge.” She launched con­fer­ence calls with blog­gers, fea­tur­ing mem­bers of the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity, to help get out the party’s mes­sage on­line. In her two terms as vice chair­wo­man, the num­ber of GOP mem­bers on so­cial me­dia skyrock­eted from 30 per­cent to 90 per­cent.

A turn­ing point came when, after two terms of work­ing at the whim of the chair­men above her—first Mike Pence and then Jeb Hensarling—Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers called Boehner and an­nounced her in­ten­tion to run for the chair­man­ship. For the first time in her polit­ic­al ca­reer, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers knew what she wanted to do and was act­ively work­ing to get her­self there.

The pro­spect of help­ing her party grow and her con­fer­ence com­mu­nic­ate in a way that it had been fail­ing to do for dec­ades ig­nited a pas­sion in Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers that had been miss­ing in much of her earli­er ca­reer. That she could do it best by tak­ing a back­seat and help­ing oth­ers to speak only made the op­por­tun­ity seem bright­er. “I just saw con­fer­ence chair as be­ing a place where I could really have a great­er in­flu­ence … to change the cul­ture on Cap­it­ol Hill,” she says.

This time, she would not be un­op­posed. Stand­ing in her way was Tom Price, a Geor­gia Re­pub­lic­an and former chair­man of the con­ser­vat­ive and in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, who was more than a dec­ade her seni­or. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers pitched her­self as a tech-savvy cam­paign­er, high­light­ing her work as vice chair­wo­man and the money she’d raised for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates. Her motto: “We have to mod­ern­ize, as Re­pub­lic­ans, not mod­er­ate.”

Al­though neither Price nor Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers said it at the time, it was clear to many in the con­fer­ence that the con­test came down to a fun­da­ment­al dis­agree­ment about the party’s pro­spects in the wake of its 2012 de­feat. It had been only two weeks since Elec­tion Day, and Re­pub­lic­ans were still reel­ing from a second loss to Obama, who again entered the White House on a wave of young, His­pan­ic, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and fe­male voters. Obama won fe­male voters by 18 points, and the down-tick­et trends wer­en’t any more fa­vor­able to the GOP. The party’s top three Re­pub­lic­ans in the House were all older white men. So was Price.

Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers would not ad­mit it then—or even now—but Speak­er Boehner, then-Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, and then-Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy backed Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers for the job. Hensarling, who had worked with her as the out­go­ing con­fer­ence chair­man, stood by Price. In a closed-door vote, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers came out the win­ner.

Many whispered that Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s vic­tory over Price came down to her gender. Even Cole, who helped to count votes for Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, had touted the im­port­ance of hav­ing a wo­man in a lead­er­ship po­s­i­tion in pitch­ing her can­did­acy. But Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers dis­misses the idea that her gender was re­spons­ible for her col­leagues’ de­cision to hand her the chair­man­ship. “I think it’s an easy shot for people to make, to say that it’s just be­cause I was a wo­man,” she says. “There was a lot taken in­to con­sid­er­a­tion, and it was the lead­er­ship that I had shown in the past.”

Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers be­came the highest-rank­ing wo­man in the House, flanked by two oth­er wo­men: Lynn Jen­kins, who serves as her vice chair­wo­man, and Vir­gin­ia Foxx, who won elec­tion as con­fer­ence sec­ret­ary.

CON­FER­ENCE CHAIR is a thank­less job that calls on its oc­cu­pant to put aside am­bi­tion and per­son­al agen­das to pri­or­it­ize the needs of the con­fer­ence. It re­quires a single in­di­vidu­al to dis­sem­in­ate a co­her­ent mes­sage for a party that right now is bet­ter known for its di­vi­sions than for its com­mon­al­it­ies.

Pre­vi­ous con­fer­ence chairs, in­clud­ing Boehner, have used the job as a lead­er­ship spring­board. But Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers so far has not. How could she when she seems al­most un­com­fort­able talk­ing about her­self? She stumbles—in­ject­ing “wow” and “oh, boy” in­to her nor­mally well-de­livered talk­ing points—when asked ques­tions quite stand­ard for a politi­cian: Why did you get in­to polit­ics? How do you work with oth­ers? By con­trast, ask her about the party and she will eas­ily rattle off mes­sages she’s taken months to hone.

That dis­cip­line, and a pref­er­ence for amp­li­fy­ing the voices of her col­leagues, has gen­er­ated good­will for Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers. But it has also led her to have a much lower pro­file than oth­er mem­bers of lead­er­ship in either cham­ber. Con­sider her Wash­ing­ton col­league Mur­ray, also No. 4 but on the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol, who has been tasked by the Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship with broker­ing massive fin­an­cial deals with Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing last year’s Ry­an-Mur­ray budget agree­ment.

Mean­while, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers spends most of her time be­hind the scenes, craft­ing mes­sages. “I’m try­ing to pro­mote a Re­pub­lic­an cause,” she says. “And part of that is [about] mes­sage as well as mes­sen­gers. It’s not about me, it’s not about my pro­file, it is about do­ing that which I think is go­ing to help our over­all ef­fort to ad­vance the con­ser­vat­ive cause.”

To pro­mote that “cause,” Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers has turned to the tech world for guid­ance. She over­hauled her of­fice to re­semble her idea of a Sil­ic­on Val­ley start-up. One wall in the entry­way is now covered in chalk­board paint and an­nounces to vis­it­ors: “WEL­COME! In one word: What makes Amer­ica GREAT?!” Staffers are on hand with pieces of brightly colored chalk, and every­one who enters the of­fice is en­cour­aged to of­fer his or her ideas. (“Pota­toes” is a staff fa­vor­ite.) Every­where there are sharply styl­ized posters with quotes that urge: “Move fast and break things.” A slide from the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence pro­duced in early Au­gust. (House GOP)

She has four full-time staffers ded­ic­ated solely to cre­at­ing ban­ners and video products for oth­er mem­bers to use on so­cial me­dia and in their dis­tricts, a lux­ury most rank-and-file of­fices can’t af­ford. The team op­er­ates like a small ad­vert­ising agency, cre­at­ing mod­ern tools to help mem­bers talk to their con­stitu­ents. It’s all part of a new, bright­er, more im­age-con­scious GOP.

Her team’s work was evid­ent in the party’s swift and co­ordin­ated re­sponse to the Su­preme Court’s Hobby Lobby de­cision. And when mem­bers re­turned home in Au­gust to cam­paign, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s graph­ics tout­ing the num­ber of bills the House has passed, and how many jobs have been lost since the re­ces­sion, could be seen across Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers’ Twit­ter, Face­book, and In­s­tagram ac­counts. All of this in an at­tempt to keep 234 mem­bers on a pre­de­ter­mined and co­ordin­ated mes­sage.

She’s also star­ted train­ing sem­inars for mem­bers and their staffs, par­tic­u­larly the re­l­at­ively in­ex­per­i­enced Class of 2010, bring­ing in ex­perts to teach them man­age­ment skills and how to nav­ig­ate con­gres­sion­al rules and pro­ced­ure. She holds lunches for the con­fer­ence where CEOs from com­pan­ies such as Ca­bela’s and Wells Fargo give TED-style talks, ad­vising mem­bers on everything from chan­ging Wash­ing­ton’s im­age to man­age­ment. “I have done a num­ber of those, and they, from an in­tel­lec­tu­al stand­point, have been the most in­ter­est­ing of the dif­fer­ent vis­its that you get on Cap­it­ol Hill,” Rep. Mark San­ford of South Car­o­lina says.

In­deed, her ef­forts aren’t just tol­er­ated, they’re pop­u­lar. And they’ve won her un­likely al­lies. “I think she’s do­ing a great job,” says con­ser­vat­ive Rep. Raul Lab­rador of Idaho, a fre­quent crit­ic of GOP lead­er­ship. “Her job is made more dif­fi­cult, I think, by our lack of an agenda. I think she wants to have one, and she wants to have one that we can com­mu­nic­ate to the Amer­ic­an people.”

AND YET, WHEN TWO high­er po­s­i­tions in lead­er­ship opened in June, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers was quick to say she would not com­pete for either. Though some out­side the Cap­it­ol were sur­prised, those with­in its walls hadn’t ex­pec­ted her to run, and many don’t see a path for­ward for her at all.

Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers felt that this year wasn’t her time to seek a pro­mo­tion, her staffers say. For one thing, al­though her staff dis­misses its sig­ni­fic­ance, she’s still un­der the shad­ow of a con­gres­sion­al eth­ics in­vest­ig­a­tion over al­leg­a­tions that she used cam­paign funds for con­gres­sion­al busi­ness, and that she spent tax­pay­er dol­lars in her race against Price and for cam­paign activ­it­ies, all of which is against the law. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers has denied the al­leg­a­tions, but the former staffer who ini­tially brought them to the fore­front has con­tin­ued to make head­lines with the scan­dal.

Per­haps most im­port­ant, where Boehner and Hensarling used the job to max­im­ize their pro­files, ap­pear­ing fre­quently on tele­vi­sion and in­sert­ing them­selves in­to the in­ner work­ings of House lead­er­ship, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers has taken an­oth­er path. “She runs the con­fer­ence once a week, and oth­er than that I don’t see many signs of her in­flu­ence there through oth­er policies. … I just haven’t seen any fin­ger­prints of Cathy Mc­Mor­ris [Rodgers],” Rep. Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas, an­oth­er lead­er­ship crit­ic, says. That is, in part, in­ten­tion­al, her al­lies in­sist. Dav­id Con­don, the may­or of Spokane, Wash­ing­ton, and a former Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers staffer, notes that when the con­gress­wo­man was in­ter­ested in cham­pi­on­ing a new is­sue, she would of­ten tell staff to see if any oth­er mem­bers had le­gis­la­tion on it. She prefers to col­lab­or­ate rather than of­fer her own bills, “real­iz­ing that per­haps her col­leagues have thought of this be­fore,” he said.

What that means, however, is that in ad­di­tion to lack­ing a pro­file, she lacks a lengthy list of sig­na­ture le­gis­la­tion, all of which adds up to a be­lief among her col­leagues and al­lies that Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers is not mov­ing up. Sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers, in­clud­ing Price, her former op­pon­ent for the chair­man­ship, said they’d nev­er even con­sidered the idea that she might run for ma­jor­ity lead­er or speak­er.

“I don’t know if [the con­fer­ence chair­man­ship] pre­pares you well, either, be­cause you’re ba­sic­ally just do­ing the bid­ding for a couple of folks above you, wheth­er you like it or not,” Huel­skamp says, adding that he wasn’t sure where her sup­port would come from. “I mean, she’s not known as be­ing a con­ser­vat­ive. She would be kind of the mod­er­ate’s can­did­ate, I guess, in the con­fer­ence, which is a very small num­ber. So no, I haven’t heard any­thing [about her mov­ing up] at all.”

But what does Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers think? Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, she says she doesn’t know. “It’s an amaz­ing course of events that’s led me to where I am. And I am com­mit­ted to do­ing everything I can to help ad­vance the goals that I’ve laid out. And I’m not sure where that leads.”

Her staff, however, holds that she is ab­so­lutely open to climb­ing the lead­er­ship lad­der; this year simply wasn’t the right mo­ment. For now, she has more work to do as chair­wo­man and will seek reelec­tion to that job in Novem­ber.

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.

She de­feated the primary chal­lenger who mocked her “Miss Con­geni­al­ity” speech by more than 40 points. And the high praise for her State of the Uni­on re­sponse—a speech that has turned oth­er rising stars like Bobby Jin­dal and Marco Ru­bio in­to punch lines—coupled with her ef­fect­ive, be­hind-the-scenes mes­saging, should be enough to si­lence naysay­ers. But in a city like Wash­ing­ton, there will al­ways be crit­ics, par­tic­u­larly of young fe­male up-and-comers. Just ask Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, who says her male col­leagues com­ment on her weight, one of them call­ing her “porky” and an­oth­er in­sist­ing that she not lose too much weight be­cause, “I like my girls chubby!”

That isn’t to say that gender hasn’t helped Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers to ad­vance. It has. The Re­pub­lic­an Party knows it needs more fe­male lead­ers, and Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers has hap­pily stepped in.

“As I was grow­ing up, I re­mem­ber be­ing told you can be any­thing that you can be,” she says as she walks out­side the Cap­it­ol after an event out­lining a new fe­male-cent­ric Re­pub­lic­an agenda. “It nev­er was em­phas­ized ‘man versus wo­man,’ and I nev­er thought of there be­ing an ad­vant­age or a dis­ad­vant­age. And yet, since I’ve been elec­ted to Con­gress there’s been more of a fo­cus on gender is­sues, es­pe­cially re­cently.”

Clearly, she un­der­stands the polit­ic­al real­ity, as the party seeks to ex­pand its reach and beat back the “War on Wo­men” at­tacks that were so suc­cess­ful for Demo­crats last cycle. It’s slow go­ing on Cap­it­ol Hill, where mem­bers are re­luct­ant to change. But few in Con­gress speak as well to the voters Re­pub­lic­ans seek as Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers does. If she is will­ing to step up, Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers is now well po­si­tioned to guide the party through the re-brand­ing it so des­per­ately needs, wheth­er she landed there be­cause she is a she or not.

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