U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers has spent many afternoons rocking a baby in a bassinet in her Cannon Building office—or toting one onto the floor of Congress. Her son, Cole, who was born in 2007 and diagnosed with Down syndrome, made her the first serving member of Congress to have a baby in over a decade. This November, the arrival of her daughter Brynn Catherine made her the first woman to give birth three times while in office. She’s known for bringing conversations about her work back around to her kids: “Being a mom has given me a whole new purpose for being in Congress, a whole new passion,” she said last year.
In short, McMorris Rodgers is the quintessential Republican counterpoint to the contraceptive-popping, In-Leaning feminist Democratic voter. She’s Supermom.
On Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers will become the first Republican woman to deliver the State of the Union response since Senator Susan Collins in 2000. As chair of the House Republican Conference, she’s the fourth-ranked Republican in the House and the highest-ranking woman in the GOP—a logical choice as Democrats continue to hold a double-digit advantage among female voters. Like her male colleagues, she has dismissed charges of a Republican war on women as a “myth” and a “war on reality.” But like the most popular women on the left, she has embraced gender as a defining part of her identity.
— Speaker John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) January 23, 2014
Colleagues expect her family to anchor her speech. “What better type of person than a mom, and the parent of a disabled child, to talk about what we as Americans want and need right now,” Congressman Pete Sessions, who co-founded the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus with McMorris Rodgers, told me. “Whether it be the Affordable Care Act, or our ability to create jobs for our children, all these things are immediately on parents’, and especially moms’ wish lists. She’s personally impacted by the decisions that are made in Washington, D.C.”
McMorris Rodgers said in a statement that she will speak about her vision for a country that “doesn’t limit where you finish because of where you started." She grew up on a farm in northeastern Washington, picking fruit in her family’s orchard and selling it in the small town of Kettle Falls. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college.
“I don’t think Cathy ever aspired to politics,” said her brother, Jeff McMorris. “I’m the outgoing extrovert in the family. Cathy is introverted, quiet, soft-spoken, more of a listener than a talker. She always planned on being behind the scenes.” But a vacancy in the state legislature landed McMorris Rodgers in Washington’s House of Representatives in 1994. There, she billed herself as a champion of small businesses, using the story of her family’s farm. In 2003, when she was trying to decide whether to run for national office, Jeff McMorris offered to manage her campaign. He gave notice at the two think tanks where he worked in western Washington and moved in with his sister. “We’ve worked together throughout our lives,” starting in the orchards, McMorris told me.
McMorris Rodgers’ family is all over her résumé: She co-founded the Down Syndrome Caucus, inspired by Cole, and the Military Family Caucus—her husband, Brian, is a retired Navy commander. As the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, along with her Democratic counterpart Representative Lois Capps, she authored and passed a law last year that prioritizes research into pediatric disabilities at the National Institutes of Health.
In 2012, McMorris Rodgers' House colleagues voted her into the number four spot over tea party favorite Tom Price; she was also Mitt Romney’s top surrogate in the House, and her was name floated for his running mate. As these accolades suggest, McMorris Rodgers is good at walking the party line. Her votes almost never deviate from party leadership’s. She believes the best way government can serve small business is to “reduce regulatory red tape,” according to Jeff McMorris. She tells the story of her disabled son to illustrate the anti-abortion cause. She has served on the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Her positions haven’t always gone over well with other working mothers: Last spring, constituents in Spokane, Washington, delivered empty milk bottles to her office to protest her support for the sequester, which cut into the “WIC” nutritional program for women, infants, and children—among countless other social services.
The most notable detour in her voting record came last year, over the Violence Against Women Act. She was the lead sponsor of a House amendment that would have prevented the bill from covering LGBT and Native American victims. But when it became clear her version would not pass, she was one of only 87 Republicans to join in voting the Senate’s version through. Some speculated she wanted to raise her profile among women voters, but RealClearPolitics noted that she did not publicize her role in passing the bill.
The State of the Union response is usually given by a party’s most promising up-and-comers, and McMorris Rodgers’ Republican colleagues were happy to speculate that she might have a future beyond the House. So far, true to form, she has expanded her influence by nurturing a brood of younger politicos. Her former district director David Condon was elected mayor of her hometown, Spokane, and her onetime legislative aide Jaime Herrera Beutler has joined her in the House. Both are raising young children while in office. “We work together on the politics, but I’ve drawn more from her strength in her position as a mom,” Herrera Beutler told me. "I definitely think she’s been a mentor, and not just for Republican women. I think she’s charted a course that women on both sides of the aisle can look at with respect and emulate.”
Brian Rodgers is the primary caretaker for the family's three children. “Brian will be the first to tell you that as a young military retired person, he didn’t expect to be Mr. Mom, but that’s what has worked for them, and he’s very supportive of Cathy,” Jeff McMorris said. When the family is in Washington state, they get some help from grandparents. “They really strive to have one date night a week,” McMorris said, for which they sometimes hire a sitter.
With her gravity-defying balancing act, McMorris Rodgers has the makings of a feminist role model—except that she has no interest in being one. According to her brother, “I don’t think she’s intentionally trying to be a trailblazer, though she may be blazing some trails.”
On the Democrats’ side of the aisle, there’s a sense that last year’s cuts have fallen hard on working moms. But in the Republican camp, in McMorris Rodgers’ office, things are looking up. On Friday, she posted a picture of herself reading a draft of her response speech on Instagram, newborn Brynn Catherine on her lap. “I've got my #SOTU remarks in one hand and 2-month old Brynn in another,” she wrote in the caption. “It really doesn't get much better than this!”