The Curse of the State of the Union Rebuttal

Jindal: Deflated. McDonnell: Indicted. Ryan: Defeated. Daniels: Departed. Rubio: Dehydrated. McMorris Rodgers: TBD

U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers
National Journal
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Shane Goldmacher
Jan. 26, 2014, 10:05 a.m.

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.