Cathy McMorris Rodgers was back in Spokane, Wash., for the holidays, hosting her district staff Christmas party at the local Old Spaghetti Factory, when she heard she'd missed a call from Speaker John A. Boehner.
"It was late enough that I decided to wait until the next day to return his call, the next morning," the Washington Republican recalled in a recent sit-down interview with CQ Roll Call . "But everything runs through your mind as to why Speaker Boehner would be calling."
A pitch to deliver the official GOP rebuttal to the president's State of the Union address was certainly "not on the list," McMorris Rodgers said.
But that was exactly what Boehner was calling to discuss.
"He simply said that he and [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell had been talking, and they thought that I was the one that they'd like to see deliver the response to —" McMorris Rodgers stopped herself. "The Republican address. We didn't call it a response. The Republican address following the State of the Union."
The work started right away.
"First it was a conference call with my staff and Boehner's staff and McConnell's staff where they could start asking me questions: 'What do you want to see in this speech, Cathy?' And I wanted it to be positive," she said. "I wanted it to be a more visionary statement about what Republicans stand for and where we'd like to see the country, and because I think we're hungry, they're hungry, to hear from us the way forward."
In addition to the content of the speech itself, McMorris Rodgers had to think about the delivery and presentation, and what sort of message that would send. On that front, she said she was ultimately inspired by Dick Morris, a Bill Clinton adviser turned controversial political prognosticator.
"He does these weekly reports where he's just sitting by a little table and talking," she said of Morris, "and I don't watch him all the time but I've watched enough of them and they're easy to listen to, and I thought, 'OK, maybe that's the way I can approach this.' We talked about doing it at the kitchen table, talked about doing it in the living room, we just explored all these different ideas and then we just went to work on the speech. And it was a lot that went into that. A lot of versions. And just when we thought we had the final version, we revised it again."
The final verdict: McMorris Rodgers should be sitting perched on the edge of a sofa. (Watch the speech here
Even though her role was not announced
for weeks, just a few days before the speech, plenty was going on behind the scenes.
The Washington Republican knew she did not have the same kind of national notoriety as GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who had delivered the State of the Union rebuttal the year before. She would have to introduce herself to America.
She and her team developed a video and social-media campaign centered not around her No. 4 spot in Republican leadership or her legislative accomplishments but on her upbringing: how she helped to run her family's fruit stand and worked at McDonald's to pay for college, and how she now balances her congressional career with raising three young children with her husband.
"You can rattle off the committees on which you serve and the bills you introduced ... but people are gonna relate to you more based on your personal experiences," McMorris Rodgers explained. "A lot of people on Capitol Hill, they know certain aspects about [me], but this was really a way introduce me to the country because ... maybe in this world people have a growing understanding of who I am and my background but for the rest of the country I am not as well known."
Besides, she added, she thinks it's part of why Boehner pitched her for the job in the first place — although she seemed to struggle to articulate what exactly made her stick out among all the possible candidates.
"Why did they pick me? Well, I think ..." she paused. "We do our little weekly press conference, and I think, you think about ... Well, I think [Boehner] doesn't think I'm running for president! Well, I don't know ... less threatening or maybe ... yeah, you should ask him."
"I don't know, I've thought that, I've thought that [Boehner] thought my story was a compelling story, he knows me enough now, he's been to my district many times. I like to think I'm a regular person who people can connect with, a lot of my experiences, and he just said, 'Be yourself.' Whatever reason, the way I talk about these issues does resonate."
And while it might make her "cringe" when critics say she's only at the leadership table because of her gender, McMorris Rodgers acknowledged that her party was "smart to show that we have women [and] recognize we have to be presenting a diverse face." (Read more of her thoughts about gender in politics here , and our story about her role in leadership here .)
"[Boehner] basically said, 'Just be yourself,'" she recalled. "He said, 'It doesn't have to be a long speech and don't over think it.' That was pretty much it."
She didn't say whether Boehner warned her against repeating Rubio's awkward water-gulping. But in the hours before she was set to deliver her response, McMorris Rodgers suggested she'd done her research, quipping to reporters as she strode through Statuary Hall: "I'm staying hydrated!"