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House GOP’s highest-ranking woman finds herself answering for Trump

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers jumps on a trampoline with Erica Norris and Kitara Johnson during a campaign event last month at a gym in Spokane Valley, Wash. (Rajah Bose/For The Washington Post)

PULLMAN, Wash. — Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — mother, lawmaker and highest-ranking woman in the House Republican leadership — had barely started taking questions at a town hall meeting here when she was forced to answer for President Trump’s tough immigration policies.

“You are separating families, children from families. What do you say as a mother of three children?” a woman asked, interrupting her. “Why are you silent?”

Republicans across the country are facing pointed questions about Trump and his policies, but for McMorris Rodgers — who as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference is No. 4 in the GOP leadership — the confrontations have gotten personal in a way they don’t for her male colleagues.

“I am not silent,” McMorris Rodgers replied, pointing to a statement she gave a local newspaper disavowing the policy of splitting migrant parents from their children. “I have said we should not be separating families.”

It was the latest installment in McMorris Rodgers’s roller-coaster relationship with Trump. She denounced him during his 2016 presidential campaign for mocking a reporter with disabilities — her oldest son, Cole, has Down syndrome — and again for his crude remarks on the “Access Hollywood” recording. But she ultimately voted for him over Hillary Clinton and became a leading candidate for interior secretary, only to be spurned after the president-elect confronted her in a Trump Tower meeting over her previous rebukes.

Now, the seven-term congresswoman has settled back into the standard Republican leadership role of promoting the president’s legislative agenda, if not the president himself — collaborating, for instance, with his daughter Ivanka on trying to make child care more affordable for working women.

She is one of her party’s most prominent female voices in Congress at a time when a quarter of the 24 GOP women are leaving the House and the vast majority of female candidates running this year are Democrats.

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But thanks in no small part to Trump, she also faces an unusually difficult path to reelection this year. She is likely to face another woman for the first time in her congressional career, not to mention a highly motivated and aggressive corps of opposition.

With Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) retiring, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) not facing serious competition — McMorris Rodgers’s race has become a trophy contest for national Democrats who see a chance to depose a GOP star.

Her Democratic opponent, Lisa Brown, is a veteran former state legislator who has raised $1.2 million and is seeking to capitalize on the incumbent’s leadership role in promoting cuts to health care and supporting other unpopular Republican priorities.

That McMorris Rodgers occupies the seat once held by Democratic Rep. Tom Foley — who in 1994 became the only sitting House speaker ever to lose reelection — has added texture to the matchup.

“There is a case to be made that this is eerily similar to that,” Brown said in an interview, minutes after telling a retirees’ advocacy group that she would focus on “representing the people of this region to our nation’s capital rather than, as my opponent does, delivering the talking points that are written in that Washington back here.”

McMorris Rodgers is responding to the pressure by walking a fine line between her district’s conservatism — it voted for Trump by 13 points — and refraining from an outright embrace of the president himself.

At the town hall and in an interview, she deflected questions about Trump and pushed back on his tone and trade policies, which could harm a district that relies on agricultural exports for its economic well-being.

“I am proud of our record of results, and that’s what I’m going to focus on,” she said. “We’re getting the economy growing. We’re creating jobs. We’re creating opportunities. And that’s what I want people to look at when they vote in 2018.”

Republicans see Democrats’ hopes of flipping the seat as little more than blind optimism in a district that has voted reliably Republican for a generation. Even in the 2006 Democratic wave, McMorris Rodgers won with more than 56 percent of the vote.

“Both Cathy and Lisa have track records, and Cathy fits the district really, really well, and Lisa fits Seattle,” said Michael Baumgartner, a Republican state senator who served alongside Brown. “That hasn’t really been talked about forcefully yet, but it will be.”

At a campaign fundraiser a few hours after the town hall, McMorris Rodgers took the first steps by delivering a flurry of attacks on Brown — mostly by highlighting a legislative record that includes writing budgets that featured tax and fee increases.

“It’s a choice between me and another gal who pretends to be someone that she’s not,” she tells donors and supporters gathered on a corporate campus set amid the rolling wheat fields surrounding Pullman.

Brown is positioning herself as an experienced consensus-builder who played a key role in bringing a medical school to Spokane. She brushes off the incumbent’s attacks on her record as evidence of a close race.

But McMorris Rodgers has raised more than twice what Brown has collected, and she is already airing ads on Spokane television stations promoting her work to help veterans and a local Air Force base, as well as a biographical spot promoting her farming background.

She has shown no sign of backing off the GOP’s push to undo the Affordable Care Act or a tax-cut package that has been criticized for disproportionately benefiting corporations and the wealthy. Rather, the tax cut and the booming economy had become the centerpiece of her message back home — just as they have been the bread and butter of her talking points on Capitol Hill.

Trade and immigration, however, are more complicated issues, where McMorris Rodgers has been caught between the needs of her district and a president who is advocating for policies that could harm it.

Brown suggests that McMorris Rodgers’s leadership ambitions have stood in the way of compromise, particularly on immigration — where a group of dissident Republicans moderates are currently trying to force votes against the GOP leadership’s wishes. McMorris Rodgers is among a group of top leaders trying to negotiate a deal.

“She has become being the person who puts together the party talking points and encourages people to stick to them,” said Brown, who points out that McMorris Rodgers has met with young undocumented immigrants who are at risk for deportation under Trump’s policies: “She’s telling them, ‘Oh, I really want to do something for you.’ Well, there’s a discharge petition right now.”

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At the town hall, McMorris offered sympathy for the young immigrants, while also emphasizing the need for border security, and pointing out that the current negotiations on Capitol Hill offered “the best path to get legislation to sign into law.”

Later, McMorris Rodgers was again confronted directly about Trump: “The current Republican Party seems to be trading away all of our country’s values and the belief in the rule of law,” another woman said. “When are you and the rest of the leadership going to stand up to this man, in front of the TV cameras?”

“I have stood up to him when I thought that was appropriate,” she replied. “I work for the people of eastern Washington, and that is my priority, to represent this district and get results on behalf of the people of eastern Washington.”

The carefully chosen words disappointed Bill Siems, a leader with the Spokane Indivisible group who attended the town hall. He said he has been to numerous McMorris Rodgers events and meetings and found it difficult to get past the “canned talk.”

“I never see a sense that there’s any shifting of the Titanic away from the iceberg,” he said. “It’s just like, we know where we’re going, and we’re going there.”

McMorris Rodgers was in a more welcoming space the day prior — in Spokane Valley, where dozens of women gathered with glasses of wine and plates of hors d’oeuvres milled around a gym for a campaign event.

“The highest-ranking Republican woman is in our district,” said Bonnie Quinn Clausen, owner of a Spokane advertising agency, before inviting a dozen other women to take the microphone and describe how “Cathy represents me.”

Erica Norris, a social media consultant who voted for Clinton, described being devastated weeks after Trump’s victory when McMorris Rodgers invited her to a “unity dinner” she hosted to mend fences after the divisive campaign.

“I don’t always agree with how Cathy votes or her politics,” she told the group, “but I believe in the person that she is.”

Trump’s name otherwise went unmentioned amid the celebration of female empowerment.

“He’s doing a lot of things that Cathy would want him to do,” Clausen said afterward. “Does she like the rhetoric? Of course not, you know? She struggles with defending the tweets and all that. But he’s getting some things done.”

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