U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane has become a spokeswoman for Republicans in Congress as the party counters Democratic claims that it's worked against the interests of women.

Share story

WASHINGTON — As the lone woman in Republican leadership in Congress, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has become a high-profile spokeswoman for a party that’s seeking to erase a consistent handicap with female voters.

The Spokane lawmaker appears regularly on talk shows and at news conferences, assailing President Obama as a failure on the federal budget and the economy — and countering Democratic claims that the GOP has it out for women.

McMorris Rodgers was to speak in a Monday evening slot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., but the convention’s first day has been canceled because of Tropical Storm Isaac.

McMorris Rodgers was the first House Republican leader to endorse presumed GOP nominee Mitt Romney, even before the primaries, and was recently given a nationally prominent role as his liaison to that chamber.

Her name was floated earlier this year as a longshot vice-presidential pick for Romney.

McMorris Rodgers’ planned appearance at the convention — a revised schedule is expected to be released Sunday — comes as her party is grappling with reverberations over a Missouri Republican Senate candidate’s comment about “legitimate rape” and heightened attention to the GOP’s anti-abortion stance.

Republicans are expected to adopt a platform opposing abortion without any explicit exemptions. McMorris Rodgers, for her part, supports legal abortions only when a mother’s life is threatened, but not for rape or incest.

She and fellow Republicans also have been at odds over issues backed by many women’s advocacy groups in the current Congress.

McMorris Rodgers voted with the House Republican majority to defund Planned Parenthood, objected to a tougher pay-parity law and mandatory insurance coverage for birth control, and opposed expanding domestic-violence protection to include gay and lesbian couples.

Her debut in Tampa — a spokeswoman says McMorris Rodgers still expects to speak — will mark a swift political journey from Kettle Falls, Stevens County. Less than a decade ago, she was working at her family’s 13-acre fruit orchard 80 miles north of Spokane while serving part time in the state Senate.

Now in her fourth term in Congress, McMorris Rodgers is vice chairwoman of the House Republican conference. She said she intends to move up a spot, to No. 4, by seeking election to conference chair next year.

All the Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate are men, making McMorris Rodgers her party’s highest-ranking female leader in Congress. She has been an articulate and telegenic messenger on the GOP’s key themes: cutting taxes, reining in spending, rolling back regulations and recharging the economy.

The spotlight on McMorris Rodgers and others like her is aimed at chipping away at women’s historical preference for Democratic candidates, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.

In every presidential election since 1980, for instance, women have favored Democrats by wider margins than have men, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. George W. Bush lost the female vote to both John Kerry and Al Gore, even as he won a majority of the male votes.

Given that history, Lawless said, McMorris Rodgers “can mitigate concerns about the Republican Party being a party of white men.”

Family firsts

McMorris Rodgers was the first in her family to earn a college degree, from Pensacola Christian College, a Baptist school in Florida. She also earned an executive master’s in business administration from the University of Washington.

At 43, she boasts political protégé’s that include David Condon, once her deputy chief of staff and now mayor of Spokane, and freshman U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, her former House legislative aide.

With Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base in her district, McMorris Rodgers has made military issues a key focus of her work in Congress. She has also been active on such issues as cutting federal spending, rural health care and families of children with disabilities.

She made minor congressional history in December 2010 when the arrival of her daughter, Grace, made her the only member of Congress to give birth twice while in office. Her son, Cole, who has Down syndrome, was born in 2007.

Her husband, Brian Rodgers, a retired Navy commander, stays home with the children. The couple split time between their town house on Capitol Hill and a house in Spokane.

The arrangement allows McMorris Rodgers to juggle a demanding schedule. She is a regular presence on television and radio, valued by Republican leadership for her discipline in staying on message no matter how dogged the questions.

Earlier this year, MSNBC political host Chris Matthews tried to pin down McMorris Rodgers on why Republicans objected to implementing a requirement under the new health-care law that Catholic hospitals and other self-insured employers provide contraceptive coverage with no additional fees.

She repeatedly kept the focus on the fact that the furor originated with a proposal from the Obama administration, not from Republicans.

It took four attempts by Matthews before McMorris Rodgers finally allowed that mandating coverage for birth control was “infringing upon our religious freedom.”

Media appearances

In an interview, McMorris Rodgers rejected that Republicans are hostile to women’s interests.

The two parties in recent months have clashed on renewing the Violence Against Women Act for domestic-violence victims and updating the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — named after a Goodyear tire-factory manager who discovered her male co-workers earned much more — to make it easier for women to sue for equal pay.

McMorris Rodgers said women are more concerned about jobs, the economy and federal spending — areas where she contends Democrats have failed voters.

“These (other) issues really have been a distraction,” she said.

McMorris Rodgers has dismissed the proposal to add gays and lesbians under the Violence Against Women Act as a “political stunt” by Democrats. And she voted against the original Lilly Ledbetter act, and contends the pay gap between men and women disappears when adjusted for education and experience.

McMorris Rodgers also has been on the fundraising and campaign trail with Romney. In the past two weeks, she has appeared at “Women for Mitt” rallies in Nevada and Colorado, two states where Romney is trailing Obama.

She said a Romney presidency would benefit all Americans, not just women. Still, her personal story makes for easy rapport with women voters, said Alison Hawkins, a Romney spokeswoman.

“She grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington and made her way. She’s an American dream,” Hawkins said. “She’s the kind of person that voters can relate to.”

In contrast, Romney is a former governor and the son of another, has two Harvard degrees and an estimated net worth of $250 million.

McMorris Rodgers noted that Republican candidates edged out Democrats among female voters in the 2010 midterm elections, a shift she attributed to women’s fears about their families’ financial future.

“Women understand the challenges in their households,” she said. “We are going to continue to see Republicans doing better with women voters.”

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com