By Elise Viebeck - 06/16/11 09:10 AM EDT
It was a pregnancy, not her role in the coming Congress, that won attention for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in December 2010.
McMorris Rodgers is the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House — a two-time vice chairwoman of the Republican conference and the leader of an energized group of Republican women who claim growing influence on its message and priorities.
Talking to McMorris Rodgers, you’re almost convinced she prefers it this way.
Mild-mannered, and at times uneasy on television, she stands in sharp relief to marquee Republican women like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), to whom bully-pulpiteering is second nature.
As one of her colleagues puts it: “Cathy knows you don’t have to have the most media attention to be a player.”
One of her priorities is to help more GOP women get elected to Congress. In 2010, she spoke with several of the now-freshman women members as they first mulled bids. Many say they frequently seek her advice.
But she acknowledges where figures like Palin and Bachmann have made a difference for races around the country — she was a “Mama Grizzly” in 2010 herself.
“They have rallied millions of people in this country to get involved. And we needed that and I give them a lot of credit,” McMorris Rodgers said.
She also notes, carefully, that that’s not the whole game.
“We also need those that are digging in and figuring out what those positive, constructive solutions will be, and they have to be serious about the way forward,” she said.
Nine new GOP women were elected in November, bringing the total number in the House to 24.
McMorris Rodgers argues that in debates like healthcare that gave Republicans power in the midterms, the caucus benefits from the perspective she and the others bring on behalf of women and families.
“I think guys — their passion is the taxes and the spending … and I think that there’s a greater recognition today that we do need to personalize these issues and that it’s not just numbers. It’s not just figures and stats and facts. We hear the men in our conference focusing on those things, but they are much friendlier now [to a different perspective],” she said.
“Even those guys around the table would admit that it’s their wife who nags them until they go to the doctor. The women already deal with trying to find the right doctor, the right specialist. They wait, they make the appointments, and” — she pivots to an argument about last year’s healthcare overhaul — “they don’t want to give that up.”
McMorris Rodgers’s open call to recruit more women is a fresh attitude in a party that’s traditionally been hesitant to call for diversity for its own sake.
“Our committee chairmen, and our conference in general, should reflect America,” she says.
“We want to put the best person possible in every position, but I think it’s also helpful to have that diverse perspective around the table.”
She brings these views to leadership discussions; participants say they know not to underestimate her quiet persona.
“The people who listen before they speak are the smartest in the room,” says one member. “Cathy listens, and when she speaks she stands her ground.”
McMorris Rodgers was born in Salem, Ore. In high school, she moved with her family to the woods of rural Washington, where they ran a 13-acre orchard and fruit stand.
The nearby town, Kettle Falls, calls itself home to “1550 friendly people.”
She attended college in Florida, and later worked in the Olympia, Wash., political office of a family friend, then-state Rep. Bob Morton (R).
When Morton moved to fill a vacancy in the state Senate, McMorris Rodgers, then 24, sought his seat and won it by appointment.
She later rose to Republican Caucus leader, a first for a woman in the state.
In both the initial appointment, by a board of county commissioners, and her bid for caucus leader, she won by one vote.
McMorris Rodgers says that, as a new representative, she earned successes by keeping her head down.
“I would show up to meetings, and take on assignments that at the time maybe weren’t my first choice, but they needed to be done,” she said.
“And of course I’d study the issues and I was trustworthy. I think those are qualities that have served me well through the years.”
She was elected to Congress in 2004. Like many ambitious newcomers, she served on the deputy whip team, then twice as class representative to the Republican Steering Committee — a sign that she can “really deliver for people,” according to one colleague.
Today, she remains largely behind the scenes, leading the caucus’s social-media efforts and co-chairing the Down Syndrome Caucus, which she helped found in 2008 after her son was born with the condition.
Her tries for other leadership positions, however, haven’t come without setbacks.
In June 2009, she was considered a front-runner for the top Republican spot on the Education and Labor committee, but lost to Rep. John Kline (Minn.) in a race that reportedly caused Boehner to consider splitting his five votes between the two.
More recently, in November, she mulled a bid for the House Republican Conference chairmanship, but opted not to run when the race took shape between two bigger personalities — current chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Bachmann.
Then pregnant and in her third trimester, McMorris Rodgers ran again for the deputy spot and won uncontested.
“I’m a workhorse, not a show horse,” she wrote in a letter announcing her bid.
Two weeks later she gave birth to her second child. Within days, she was back at work, greeted with applause by the steering committee.