The one woman in Republican leadership is under siege
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At least one Republican, Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, is seriously considering challenging McMorris Rodgers, several of those sources said. But the other lawmakers who want her job are hoping McMorris Rodgers steps down or runs for another position.
McMorris Rodgers’ staff has had to swat down recurring rumors that she’ll retire — speculation that has irked the Washington state Republican, people close to her said. In a recent radio interview in her district, she accused unnamed people of spreading the rumors because they were “hoping that I’ll retire.”
McMorris Rodgers said she’s not going anywhere. And her allies say she’s certainly not stepping down as conference chair anytime soon.
“Posturing about decisions we’ll make after the election is naive, divisive, and it’s distracting from the Conference’s shared goals of finishing our work in the House and keeping this majority," McMorris Rodgers said in a statement, declining to address questions about her future in leadership.
In fact, one ally of McMorris Rodgers said she might try to move up in leadership. If Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, currently the second- and third-ranking House Republicans, ascend one rung, McMorris Rodgers might run for whip, according to a second ally. In that scenario, she’d likely square off against Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), currently Scalise’s chief deputy. But McHenry is seen as a prohibitive favorite for that post if he runs.
Another ally of McMorris Rodgers said she might even run for majority leader depending on how the leadership shakeup plays out, though the person said she probably wouldn’t challenge Scalise or McCarthy. In late 2015, McMorris Rodgers ran very briefly for majority leader against Scalise, only to withdraw days later when it became apparent she wouldn’t win.
After Donald Trump’s 2016 election, McMorris Rodgers also suffered an embarrassment when she expressed interest in becoming his Interior secretary, only to see another more junior congressman, Ryan Zinke, get the appointment. Multiple newspapers had reported that McMorris Rodgers was favored for the job.
While she faces potential challenges to her own leadership role, McMorris Rodgers is under pressure back home. Her Democratic opponent, former state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, is raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep pace with McMorris Rodgers’ fundraising totals. And Brown trails her by only 6 points, according to a recent independent poll.
That almost certainly means “CMR,” as she’s nicknamed in the House, will have to divert some of her attention from the leadership jockeying in Congress to her own race.
Defenders of McMorris Rodgers downplayed any threat to her and argued she can easily do both. They said those agitating against McMorris Rodgers represent a small fraction of the conference and suggested that perhaps some lawmakers were being more critical of her because she is a woman.
They also note that McMorris Rodgers has done a lot to highlight the work of lower-profile members, winning friends in the conference.
“She really has a strong hold on that position,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who whipped for McMorris Rodgers when she first ran for conference chair in 2012. “She won it very decisively. She’s essentially been unchallenged since then. And I think, no question, that she would enter any race for reelection as the favorite.”
Asked whether he was worried about anyone challenging her, Cole responded: “He’d get his clock cleaned! I don’t know any guy in the conference that brave.”
McMorris Rodgers, 48, is a proud former Pacific Northwest farmer. She often touts her family’s centurylong lineage dating back to their 1850s travels on the Oregon Trail. McMorris Rodgers served in the Washington Statehouse before coming to Congress in 2005 as a single woman, eventually marrying and having three children.
While her husband, a retired Navy commander, works as a stay-at-home father, McMorris Rodgers is still heavily involved with her kids’ upbringing. She gets them ready for school and makes a point to be home for dinner before heading back to work to raise money or attend late-night votes.
That packed schedule means she rarely hobnobs with other lawmakers or reporters. She has a reputation for being cautious and often sticks to talking points.
In 2012, Speaker John Boehner endorsed McMorris Rodgers for conference chair over then-Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who also wanted the position and would later serve as Trump’s Health and Human services secretary. Ryan, then running for vice president, backed Price.
Since then, McMorris Rodgers has used her position to encourage lawmakers to use social media and other modern communication tools to engage with constituents.
McMorris Rodgers has a fair number of detractors, however. Some lawmakers have chafed at the digital “challenges” she has repeatedly issued to members to do more online communications — one aide called it “busy work.” They’ve also poked fun at her “Reagan Communications Award,” a competition among members in which winners are awarded a bust of the 39th president for talking about tax reform. (A conference staffer said the digital challenge, which is optional, is actually quite popular with GOP offices and argued that the Reagan award was the idea of the entire GOP leadership team, not just McMorris Rodgers.)
Another Republican lawmaker bemoaned what the person called “an endless reel of the same boring talking points” issued by McMorris Rodgers to rank-and-file members. A GOP aide called McMorris Rodgers’ approach “milquetoast.” And another GOP lawmaker said the conference needed a more aggressive combatant on TV than McMorris Rodgers to take on Democrats over the GOP tax cuts and attempted repeal of Obamacare.
During a whip meeting just after the botched rollout of the Republican health care repeal effort, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) criticized the lack of strategy behind the bill’s unveiling. Hudson said he put more planning into how to spend his last trip to his district than leadership had in the entire repeal rollout.
Though he didn’t name McMorris Rodgers, some people in the room took his remarks as a jab at the conference chair and approached Hudson about running for the position, according to sources familiar with those conversations. Hudson told POLITICO his comments weren’t aimed at McMorris Rodgers and that he would not run against her.
A McMorris Rodgers defender argued that the repeal rollout was a leadership-wide failure and one they learned from with an improved rollout of the GOP’s tax reform plan. The person also noted that McMorris Rodgers‘ office coined and popularized "Schumer Shutdown," a GOP phrase that went viral during the government closure earlier this year.
Many Republicans have privately expressed interest in McMorris Rodgers’ job, but few have said they’d be willing to challenge her. If anyone were to take on McMorris Rodgers, most Republicans believe it would be Walker, the Republican Study Committee chairman. While his office did not respond to a request for comment, the North Carolinian has been raising his profile of late and spending more time with GOP leaders.
But multiple Republican lawmakers said only a female member could replace McMorris Rodgers. The appearance of an all-white male GOP leadership team would be too damaging, they said.
There’s no dearth of more junior women looking to move up.
Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, a longtime deputy whip known for her fiery rhetoric, has made no secret of her desire to jump into leadership. Rep. Mimi Walters of California is also seen as a rising star and briefly pursued the conference chair job in 2016 when it looked like McMorris Rodgers would join Trump’s Cabinet.
Others pointed to Brooks, a well-liked former federal prosecutor, or Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York or Mia Love of Utah, as potential future female members of leadership.
Women, however, often stick together and are unlikely to run against McMorris Rodgers, several of them said.
“I think she’d be tough to beat,” said Walters, adding that she would never run against McMorris Rodgers. “She’s been good to people.”