A member's "plus-one" to the State of the Union is one of the hottest tickets in town, and this year the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference is asking members to invite constituents with "compelling stories" to share.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who will also be delivering the official Republican counterpoint-address to President Barack Obama's speech next Tuesday, has formally urged her colleagues to fill the House chamber with "American people who are being left behind by this President's policies."
"The stories of hardworking Americans will help us offer a compelling, articulate response to the State of the Union," she explained in an email to GOP Congressional offices on Jan. 8.
"Whether it is a mom struggling to find a job, a senior worried about access to doctors, or a high school student with dreams to create the next Uber, the stories of hardworking Americans will help us offer a compelling, articulate response to the State of the Union," McMorris Rodgers said.
Inviting guests to the State of the Union whose stories resonate, or contrast, with the themes of the president's speech is par for the course. For leadership to encourage members to invite guests of a certain demographic, however, is more unusual.
And, for the first time, House Republicans are looking to harness the personal narratives of lawmakers' guests and made them widely accessible to the public.
"Our job right now, and has been, to talk about the real problems Americans are facing every day," said a Republican leadership aide. "We can't be abstract about it."
Another GOP leadership aide familiar with the initiative explained that staff with the House Republican Conference will collect, then disseminate, guests' narratives. They'll post anecdotes on Twitter and other social media platforms on the day of the speech and as Obama is delivering it, plus facilitate on-camera interviews with members and their constituents in the conference's "war room" in the Cannon House Office Building.
McMorris Rodgers, who has finished the first year of her tenure as chairwoman of the de facto public relations department for the chamber's members, has been trying to refine messaging and talking points within the conference, seeking to make inroads with nontraditional constituencies by facilitating a kindler, gentler GOP brand for the 21st century.
Asking members to be savvy about their State of the Union invites could help focus those members of the conference with whom her message has fallen on deaf ears, those who can't always be trusted not to make foot-in-mouth statements.
At the last State of the Union, for instance, freshman Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, created a distraction over his controversial invitation of Ted Nugent.
The GOP leadership aide involved in the effort said there wasn't intended to be an explicit chilling effect for members toying with the idea of bringing the Ted Nugents of the world to the State of the Union.
"Is it potentially a byproduct? Maybe," the aide acknowledged.
The aide said that "dozens" of members have committed to participating in the experiment, while others appear not to have gotten the memo: Texas Republican Louie Gohmert is bringing along conservative talk show host Sean Hannity.
One House Republican, who told 218 he only recalled hearing a directive that they invite guests impacted by Obamacare, is bringing a student from his district.
A spokesman for another House GOP lawmaker said his boss is bringing his wife.
Read McMorris Rodgers' full e-mail below:
Dear Republican Chiefs, Legislative Directors, Communicators, and Schedulers:
As part of House Republicans’ efforts to go on offense before, during, and after this year’s State of the Union, a key part of our response will focus on telling stories of the American people who are being left behind by this President’s policies. Our efforts surrounding this speech should not be a “rapid response,” but instead a real response.
This morning at Conference I announced an initiative to encourage Members to give their State of the Union guest ticket to people with compelling stories to share. Filling the House gallery with those we serve and who are committed to helping will provide a powerful contrast to the empty rhetoric of the President. Whether it is a mom struggling to find a job, a senior worried about access to doctors, or a high school student with dreams to create the next Uber, the stories of hardworking Americans will help us offer a compelling, articulate response to the State of the Union.
If your Member is interested in participating, please complete this brief survey and Conference will contact you with more details on how to make your efforts integral to our real response.
WHAT: Use Member Guest Tickets to Invite a Constituent to the State of the Union
WHEN: State of the Union, January 28
HOW: Complete this very brief survey
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
Thanks in advance for all of your hard work,
Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Chair, House Republican Conference