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Republicans Find Fresh Voice on Gender Issue

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers greets her son Cole, 4, at the beginning of Easter recess.

For now, at least, the gender issue is at the forefront. And even before last week’s flare-up, McMorris Rodgers was spending time refuting the Democratic talking point that the Republican Party is waging a “war on women.”

At a March 22 breakfast hosted by Romney, McMorris Rodgers told the former Massachusetts governor, “Don’t let this issue scare you.” The statement was greeted with applause.

“Republicans won the women’s vote in 2010! It’s not a headline that a lot of papers ran,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview at her office in the Rayburn House Office Building. She also argues that reports of political damage to the GOP from recent episodes on women’s issues, such as this year’s fight over the Obama administration’s contraception rules, are overblown.

A common sentiment communicated to Roll Call in background and off-the-record conversations is that McMorris Rodgers offers appeal to female voters, and, because of her background, to blue-collar voters.

McMorris Rodgers grew up on a 12-acre orchard, selling fruit from the family truck. She worked her way through Pensacola Christian College, a strict Baptist school with a “no-touch” policy between members of the opposite sex. “I got in trouble at PCC a couple of times,” she said.

At 24, she was appointed to represent a rural district in the Washington state House. One key constituent concern was cougars stalking farm animals. But she also led a bitter fight to prevent state employees from unionizing. In 2002, she was elected Minority Leader, the first woman to lead either party in the state House.

That year she told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that she had no aspirations for higher office, but a subsequent phone call from then-Rep. George Nethercutt (R), who was leaving Washington’s 5th district to run for Senate, changed her mind. In 2004, she won Nethercutt’s seat.

Now in her fourth term, she has some experience on Capitol Hill to balance Romney’s image, but not too much. She’s a “surprise” but not a “shock,” given her familiarity with the D.C. press corps, proponents argue.

McMorris Rodgers is one of at least three top female candidates Romney’s team could consider, with the others being New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

Neither Martinez nor Ayotte have spent much time in front of the public eye, which a GOP leadership aide said could lead to problems: “Exhibit A: Sarah Palin.”

The aide described McMorris Rodgers as “Republican woman version 3.0.” Palin was charismatic and conservative but wilted under the spotlight. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was charismatic and conservative but highly polarizing. McMorris Rodgers strikes a balance of conservatism, experience and effective messaging, the thinking goes.

However, some of the (mostly male) GOP operatives consulted on the question offered harsh verdicts of her chances.

“It’s a little silly for them to play that card,” one said.

“I think she has a very bright future, but I’m not sure she would be in the top 10 this cycle,” a second said.

“1-in-1,000 chance,” a third said.

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