Only a handful of women have delivered a response to the State of Union address over the past two decades, and tonight, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) will join the list, giving an English and Spanish version of the same speech. The move underscores the GOP’s two main challenges–courting women and courting Latinos–and marks the first time that Republicans have chosen two women to rebut a president’s annual address. The White House has leaked some details of his speech, but what might McMorris Rodgers and Ros-Lehtinen touch on in their speeches, particularly around women’s issues?
Here are four questions in advance of the speech:
1. Does McMorris Rodgers frame income inequality and social mobility as a woman’s issue? Democrats have zeroed in on income inequality as a prime issue for 2014 and Republicans have framed the same issue as economic opportunity and social mobility. Tonight, sitting in Michelle Obama’s box as a special guest will be a woman named Sabrina Simone Jenkins, who served in the Air Force, and then went to school while working, raising a daughter, tending to her own ill health and caring for ailing family members. It’s a powerful story that the President may recount from the podium, framing the inability to get ahead as particularly difficult for single women, a demographic that has strongly backed Democratic candidates, contributing to the overall gender gap that Republicans desperately want to close. McMorris Rodgers could metaphorically surround herself with women as well, sharing anecdotes of women around the country.
2. Does she bring up abortion? Last week, the abortion debate was front and center in the Republican National committee’s winter meeting. Top GOP leaders decided to delay the start of the annual gathering so that they could participate in the annual March for Life rally, an event that drew thousands to the National Mall. Republicans also overwhelming passed a resolution that says the party and candidates should stand firm on their abortion views, rather than cede ground, by downplaying social issues as some Republicans have urged. What’s clear is that Republicans would rather have a prominent woman as the face of the party’s stance on abortion, rather than a sea of men. And McMorris Rodgers, a mother of three, including one son, Cole, who has Down Syndrome, could be a great messenger.
3. Does she bring up Little Sisters of the Poor? The contraception debate has not been helpful ground for Republicans, with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee as the most recent one to stumble. But one issue that likely resonates more broadly is the Supreme Court’s decision around a group of Colorado nuns who got a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s mandated contraception coverage. Republicans definitely want to talk about Obamacare, and like Obama, see women as a prime audience. In mentioning the nuns, McMorris Rodgers could frame the law as encrouching on religious freedom but also it allows her to clean up and clarify her party’s stance on contraception more generally, a conversation that has mostly (and unhelpfully) been led by Republican men.
4. Is she a star? State of the Union responses are usually forgettable affairs. In fact, that’s often the best politicians can hope for. Over the last few years, they have been memorable for all the wrong reasons. Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) desperate water grab comes to mind. And Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s overly earnest delivery that brought to mind 30 Rock’s Kenneth the page does too. McMorris Rodgers has been tweeting out photos and videos of her prep sessions, demonstrating her social media savvy. But does she have what it takes to be on a bigger stage and to avoid being forgettable or only memorable for her flubs. Republicans do want a woman (ideally multiple women) out front to carry their message on issues ranging from abortion to the economy and tonight Rodgers has a big opportunity to make a play for that role. Television is a funny thing. It magnifies flaws. And rewards the intangible. Tonight will be a big test as to whether McMorris Rodgers fills the chair.