Cathy McMorris Rodgers has two major goals: changing how Republicans sell themselves to the American people and how Americans view the Republican Party.
But the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference has seen firsthand that she faces an uphill battle to undo decades of learned behavior within the ranks of the Grand Old Party.
Since taking the helm of the House GOP’s de facto public relations department at the start of the 113th Congress, McMorris Rodgers has revolutionized the party’s interactions with Latino voters — only to see the party's image take a hit every time a Republican lawmaker uses inflammatory rhetoric about illegal immigrants .
The Washington Republican acknowledged during a recent sit-down interview with CQ Roll Call that she has had “frustrations” with members who don’t stick to leadership-sanctioned talking points to promote a kinder, gentler party, those who are older and set firmly in their ways. She also said she “cringes” when people say her success is due only to her gender or that because she’s working behind the scenes she must be a lightweight with little clout.
She hasn’t given up hope, though, that with enough hand-holding, her colleagues will eventually see the light, a healthier public perception of the GOP will prevail, and she will have played a part in turning things around.
“It’s been months now that we’ve been encouraging, challenging our members, you know, ‘Tell the story, we’re collecting stories,’” McMorris Rodgers said, her voice taking on the upbeat but weary tone she uses when imploring colleagues, for perhaps the 10th time that week, to direct constituents who have been negatively affected by Obamacare to contribute accounts of their experiences to her online repository of personal anecdotes . (That's gop.gov/yourstory, for those keeping track, and McMorris Rodgers' office says she has collected more than 25,000 responses.)
“We’re highlighting some of the members that do it well and really trying to reinforce [it],” she continued. “Clearly, there’s still more work to do.”
McMorris Rodgers ran to become conference chairwoman because she wanted to “change the tone” of the Republican Party, to repair a GOP brand that she said had “been damaged” after elections in 2008 and 2012.
“We’ve allowed our opponents to define us in ways that are not appropriate and not accurate,” she said. “It’s fair to say we often argue facts and figures and we also need to argue from the heart … and make sure that people know that we do care, that we do understand, that we’re fighting for policies that are going to make their lives better.”
She followed her own advice when delivering this year’s Republican response to the State of the Union. Nationally unknown until that point, McMorris Rodgers chose to introduce herself to America not as a senior lawmaker, but as a farmer’s daughter who worked at McDonald’s to put herself through college and as a working mother of three young children, one of whom has Down syndrome. It was either that or "rattle off the committees on which you serve and the bills you introduced and got signed into law," she said.
“The people are gonna relate to you more based on your personal experiences. ... I would put my background, my experience, my work on Capitol Hill, my leadership on a number of issues up against any other member, OK?
“Having said that,” she continued, “I also think the Republicans recognize we have to be presenting a diverse face, and I think it’s smart that we show that we have women.”
Democrats ridiculed McMorris Rodgers for being selected only because she is a woman in a male-dominated party desperate to appear diverse. The Washington Republican said its among her "biggest challenges" to frequently combat accusations she is just a "token woman."
“I do think Republicans wanted to have a woman out front,” former Rep. Connie Morella, a Maryland Republican who is now president of the Association of Former Members of Congress, said. “If you don’t have women there, what kind of party are you?”
As one behavior-changing tactic, McMorris Rodgers has created an environment where any colleagues resistant to exploring new ways to connect with different constituencies can no longer say they don't know how to engage.
In the McMorris Rodgers regime, lawmakers have no shortage of resources at their disposal. Her suite of offices on the second floor of the Cannon House Office Building is half war room, half political consulting firm, and 14 full-time staffers make themselves available to members for guidance and support.
Aides have expertise in the realms of niche media markets, meaning they can help get lawmakers booked on TV shows and mentioned in newspapers geared toward nontraditional GOP voting blocs: Latinos, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, women or young people. And everyone knows everything about communication tools, from the traditional to Twitter and Vine.
McMorris Rodgers doesn’t appear resentful of having to take such a hands-on approach, though a real concern might be whether her gospel has staying power. If she goes away, will members take initiative on their own?
“Look at the series of meetups that we have organized with different segments of the population — the Millennial Meetup, the Hispanic, the Vietnamese, the Korean,” said McMorris Rodgers of the series of Washington, D.C.-based symposiums she has hosted to bring diverse constituencies to the Republican table. “We are challenging our members to invite people from their districts to participate here, and now the next step is for them to actually do it in their own districts.”
A case study could be Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who recently made headlines by holding a Spanish-language town hall on immigration on his own turf. Nearly 150 constituents attended, McMorris Rodgers said, and it was made possible by the House Republican Conference and its Latino media coordinator, Wadi Gaitan, who actually drove down to South Carolina to provide support.
“Give them all the credit,” Mulvaney, who often aligns himself with the tea party, told CQ Roll Call. He said that his constituents have rewarded him.
“I’ve done three or four NAACP meetings, and we have another one scheduled for this spring,” Mulvaney said. “It’s been very well received, ... not necessarily by the hard right of the party but overwhelmingly the folks back home approve of what I’ve done.”
McMorris Rodgers suggested she is always thinking strategically about whether the House Republican legislative agenda reflects an evolving, more inclusive GOP. Without tipping her hand on what could happen on the floor when it comes to immigration legislation , McMorris Rodgers said the party “cannot allow ourselves to be defined as the anti-immigrant party."
She is working with other members of GOP leadership to produce an alternative health care bill to the Affordable Care Act , one she hopes will be introduced, even as a discussion draft, before the midterms.
“I think it’s important that the Republicans are presenting a path forward on health care,” she said. “Despite the Democrats’ continued drumbeat to suggest Republicans don’t have any solutions on health care, we do.”
Like any smart and seasoned politician, McMorris Rodgers was coy when asked about her political aspirations: “I’m excited about what we have been doing and accomplishing and I want to continue to be on this team and do what I can, and whatever role that may be moving forward, I’m not sure.”
Former Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., has her own predictions for her former colleague.
“She [has] realistic and achievable ideas ... grit, grace and patience,” said Bono, now a consultant, “all of which will serve her quite well and will pay off in the long run.”