Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a new GOP face for the State of the Union response

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a new GOP face for the State of the Union response

The top-ranking woman in the Republican congressional leadership gave birth to a baby girl two months ago and is the only woman in American history to have had three children while serving in the House of Representatives. On Tuesday night, that five-term congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, introduced her personal and professional accomplishments to the nation when she gives her party’s official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.

McMorris Rodgers, 44, was selected five weeks ago by House and Senate GOP leaders to give the response, according to a House leadership aide. The selection of the No. 4-ranking House Republican had "absolutely nothing" to do with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s inflammatory comment last week that Democrats think women can’t control their libidos and therefore need government help paying for birth control, the aide said. But the awkward timing of Huckabee's remarks means her performance Tuesday night is sure to become part of the narrative of the Republican Party’s pushback against the “war on women” framing Democrats used to such devastating effect during the 2012 election, when the gender gap stretched to a record 20 points.

It will also represent a rare recent instance of someone without well-aired ambitions to higher office giving a State of the Union Response. And unlike some of the GOP’s highest profile female politicians in recent years — such as former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin or former presidential aspirant Michele Bachmann — McMorris Rodgers represents the mainstream conservative Republican wing of the GOP, not the tea party.

(The tea party response to Obama this year will be given by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who gave the tea party response last year, has decided to give his own speech responding to the president, as well.)

During the 2012 campaign, McMorris Rodgers was a stalwart surrogate for Mitt Romney who pushed back against the "war on women" rhetoric in much the same way Republicans are continuing to do. “The war on women is really a myth ... it’s been created by the Democrats in an effort to distract Americans from the real issues,” she said during a "Meet the Press" appearance. 

That sort of argument — that an issue Democrats think is real is not really real — did not sway voters that year and seems unlikely to do so now. But just because there was an enormous gender gap in 2012 doesn’t mean the GOP can’t win female voters; in 2010, the GOP won women during the midterm elections for the first time since the Reagan era.

Republicans are hoping to do that again in 2014, or at least cut down the size of the gender gap, by focusing on core economic issues that affect women, such as the price of gas, food costs and the job market generally. McMorris Rodgers hopes to counter the president's speech by highlighting her party's different approach to the question of creating opportunities for economic advancement. Women are considerably more pessimistic than men on the question of how well the economy works for them, according to a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll.

“She’s not approaching this as a policy speech or even as a rebuttal of what the president might say; she really wants to articulate a powerful vision of how the Republican Party believes people can get ahead,” said the GOP aide. McMorris Rodgers will also highlight her personal story of having grown up in a working class farm family and worked her way through college as a motel maid and a McDonald’s drive-thru cashier before becoming the first in her family to earn a degree. She also holds an MBA from the University of Washington.

Democrats and women’s groups were skeptical that having a female Republican speak Tuesday would have any impact on perceptions of the parties and their ongoing fight over how to improve the status of women.

“For anyone who thinks that the GOP has ‘figured it out’ because they’ve picked two women to address the nation after the SOTU, a quick reminder: When women reject their agenda, they are rejecting an opposition to equal pay, access to health care, [the Violence Against Women Act] and any chance at a fair shot,” said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, a group that funds Democratic women who support abortion rights. “It’s about policy, which cannot be covered up by a photo op or a sensitivity training.”

Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will be giving the GOP Spanish-language response to the State of the Union after McMorris Rodger speaks.