GOP messenger was effective and appealing in rebuttal

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) delivers the GOP rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address. (The Washington Post)

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) had one of the more difficult tasks in politics, delivering the official Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

As with previous responders, she had to speak from an isolated setting — a quiet room inside the Capitol — and without the pomp and near-constant applause given to the president down the hall. Nevertheless, and to the surprise of many insiders, McMorris Rodgers largely succeeded — mixing plain-spoken platitudes with tenderly told stories about her children and her blue-collar roots.

House GOP aides said her selection was driven in part by a desire to highlight Republican women, hoping to combat Democrats’ aggressive criticism of the GOP’s approach to women’s issues.

It was all there — easygoing populism and an emphasis on jobs and her family, which includes a son with Down syndrome and a Navy veteran husband. It was as if a Republican pollster had created a politician with the exact profile that Republicans are looking to promote as they head toward this year’s midterm elections.

Here was an antiabortion, ­never-offensive woman from a Western state who grew up picking apples on a farm; a youthful, 44-year-old evangelical Christian who is known as one of the savvier social-media users in the House, uploading photos to Instagram and videos to Vine.

Even better, there was no awkward reaching for a water bottle, as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) did repeatedly last year in his response, and none of the clumsy articulation that caused long­-lasting headaches for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2009 after he delivered the Republican response to an Obama economic speech. Instead, the congresswoman’s delivery was relatively smooth as she whisked through her scripted remarks late Tuesday, seated on a gold couch with a folded American flag on a shelf behind her.

No drama, no problems. You could almost hear the collective exhale of relief by Republicans as they strolled through Statuary Hall, many of them watching McMorris Rodgers on their iPhones or televisions nearby. After a tumultuous year full of shutdowns and drama, Republicans cheered McMorris Rodgers’s understated manner and upbeat, check-the-box appeal.

The essence of the speech was soft outreach and balance. “I’d like to share a more hopeful Republican vision,” McMorris Rodgers said.

She criticized the president without going overboard. She talked about repealing the Affordable Care Act but didn’t use a rhetorical hammer to make the point. On policy, she touched on economic growth and fiscal reform but never dove into the weeds, frustrating some conservative onlookers. She fulfilled the unspoken part of her duties: sound winsome and engaging, but do not make news.

“Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder,” McMorris Rodgers said, citing her days as a McDonald’s drive-through employee as evidence of her empathy. “Republicans have plans to close the gap.”

On health care: “We’ve all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn’t expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have,” she said. “No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but the president’s health-care law is not working.”

Yet, despite the clapping of the GOP faithful, questions linger, especially this one: Why is McMorris Rodgers only now getting widespread attention and a heavyweight billing from her party after five terms in the House and more than a year in the leadership? Until Tuesday night, many Americans, outside the usual Beltway types, had never heard of her.

The answer is complicated, partly because expectations for McMorris Rodgers inside the party hierarchy have rarely been as high as they are this week. She’s admired and respected, but she has never been thought of as the next Nikki Haley or Susana Martinez — a possible star who could fire up a convention hall or a national ticket.

Nor has she been a major policy leader in the House in the Paul Ryan mold, building a reputation with reporters and colleagues as a wonk and legislative power broker. Rather, she is just “CMR,” as House aides have dubbed her, a low-key workhorse spokeswoman for the GOP cause, standing dutifully beside House Speaker John A. Boehner at weekly news conferences and touting the party’s Web presence.

Her ascension this week is partly due to the qualities that have kept her below the radar. In a House full of tea party sharks, Boehner has struggled to build a trusted coterie of younger lawmakers around him. Since they first met, he has been drawn to McMorris Rodgers’s no-fuss approach to internal House politics. Boehner blessed her campaign for conference vice chairman in 2008 and then for conference chairman in late 2012, when she fended off a challenge from Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), a conservative who was endorsed by Ryan (Wis.) and his allies. McMorris Rodgers’s personality also appealed to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who trusted her to be his Capitol Hill liaison.

With her assured response Tuesday night, that image as a friendly, iPad-toting leadership loyalist finally seems to be falling away.

Talk of a possible veep slot in 2016 is in the air, as is the possibility that McMorris Rodgers will rise through the House Republican ranks should Boehner decide to step down in the coming years. Even though she has been part of the brass for a while, it’s as if Republicans are suddenly waking up to the focus-group charm of CMR.

Here was someone with a compelling story who spoke Tuesday like a real person — a little stiff, maybe, but someone who doesn’t suffer from the usual Capitol Hill airs.

“The most important moments right now aren’t happening here. They’re not in the Oval Office or in the House chamber,” she said. “They’re in your homes: kissing your kids good night, figuring out how to pay the bills, getting ready for tomorrow’s doctor’s visit, waiting to hear from those you love serving in Afghanistan or searching for that big job interview.”

Moving forward, the challenge for McMorris Rodgers will be whether she can seize the moment and build the national profile that so far has eluded her.

She has a leadership political action committee, which was busy last cycle raising more than $1 million for the National Republican Campaign Committee, but she doesn’t have an extensive political team. Her brother, Jeff McMorris, is probably her closest political adviser, having guided her campaigns since she first ran for the House.

It’s an open playbook for McMorris Rodgers. She has Boehner’s full support and new interest from the media, and she remains the only woman in the elected Republican leadership in Congress. With all she had to offer Tuesday for a party that is struggling to close the gender gap and rebound from back-to-back defeats in national elections, it’s a wonder she hasn’t appeared on the scene sooner.

Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
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