The Republican Leadership Member Most Likely to Lose

Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the most powerful Republican woman in the country. But in the “year of the woman,” she’s in a fight for her political life.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Look over Speaker Paul Ryan’s shoulder at a press conference. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the representative for Washington’s Fifth District and the chair of the House Republican Conference, will often be there. Frequently, she’s the only woman at House Republicans’ press conferences, though it’s usually Ryan’s words, not hers, that make the news. This year, McMorris Rodgers is fighting for her political survival in an unexpectedly competitive race to lock down her Spokane-area district.

Polls show her a few points ahead of the Democrat Lisa Brown, a former state Senate majority leader and university chancellor. In what has been called the “year of the woman,” McMorris Rodgers—the most prominent female elected Republican in the country—is facing a challenge from another high-profile female candidate. The race in former Democratic Speaker Tom Foley’s old district will also serve as a referendum of sorts on President Donald Trump, given McMorris Rodgers close ties to him, and on his tariffs, which are meeting skepticism in a district reliant on agriculture and the aerospace sector. And two potential missteps by McMorris Rodgers—one involving an attack ad many felt was unfair, and the other a fund-raising visit by the controversial House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes—have only added to the drama.

In one of Washington’s so-called jungle primaries, in which the top-two vote getters win regardless of party, McMorris Rodgers drew slightly more than 49 percent of the vote, with Brown less than four points behind her. A “Trump populist” and two other Republicans took 5 percent between them. “The barometer I use is when an incumbent is below 50, they’ve got a problem,” says Ron Dotzauer, a veteran Democratic consultant based in Washington with a penchant for boss-of-the-plains hats.

And McMorris Rodgers’s campaign seems to realize there are warning signs. Todd Cranney, a consultant working with the congresswoman’s campaign, believes she is likely to win, but acknowledged that the race is more competitive than any McMorris Rodgers has faced in the recent past.

The election in the fall will be competitive in part because Democrats frequently do several points better in general elections than in primaries, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Kondik rates the district as “lean Republican,” consistent with other prognosticators. FiveThirtyEight’s recently released House forecast gives McMorris Rodgers a five-in-seven chance of victory. The Cook Political Report considers the district eight points more Republican on average than the nation as a whole. But the seat is unlikely to tip the balance of the House. Democrats need to gain 24 seats to take the chamber; if Washington’s Fifth falls, the party is likely to do substantially better than that, perhaps taking 35 or 40 House seats on the night, and maybe more.

The Fifth District hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1992. McMorris Rodgers has never scored less than 56 percent of the vote, and often racks up wins in the mid-60s. President Trump won the district in 2016 by 13 percent. Both Brown and McMorris Rodgers came up through Washington’s state legislature. Brown spent 20 years in both houses; McMorris Rodgers more than a decade as a state representative. McMorris Rodgers took the Fifth District in the 2004 election and rose quickly through the Republican ranks in the House, becoming the vice chair of the Republican Conference in four years and the chair in another four after that.

Likely the most powerful elected female Republican in the country and the only one of 23 Republican women in the House in a senior-leadership role, McMorris Rodgers is no stranger to the spotlight. She’s constructed a carefully crafted public image in her decades in politics, one that plays up her role as a mother and plays down partisan politics, says the Gonzaga University political-science professor Cynthia Stavrianos. Profiles in national media often emphasize that she was appointed to the state legislature, pointing to a role as an almost accidental politician. To State Senator Michael Baumgartner, she’s “the farm girl from Kettle Falls.”

In 2016, McMorris Rodgers spearheaded a GOP media strategy aimed at reaching female voters through magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Marie Claire, and Glamour. McMorris Rodgers is no stranger to that kind of marketing. Mark Schoesler, the Republican minority leader in Washington’s state Senate and a longtime friend and ally of McMorris Rodgers since their days seated side by side in the legislature, describes her as “genuinely a warm, loving, Christian person.” Last May, she discussed her son’s Down syndrome in a Washington Post op-ed supporting the Republicans’ American Health Care Ac, which would have overturned the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

But if gender becomes a major factor in the race, her opponent could stand to benefit more than she does. A little rabble-rousing has been effective for many Democratic women in 2018. There’s a reason figures such as the democratic-socialist firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive Kara Eastman are winning primaries. And even more establishment-backed Democrats are finding a sharper tone helpful.

In a year in which progressive women have capitalized on what they see as Republican failure to address the concerns of female voters—Brown, for instance, cites McMorris Rodgers’s vote against pay equity—the positions most galvanizing to women may be more left leaning. Both candidates are emphasizing their motherhood and femininity, but in markedly different ways, says Susanne Beechey, a politics and gender-studies professor at Whitman College, in Walla Walla.

Still, in a Republican-leaning district, some pervasive attitudes in American gender politics may also hurt Brown. In the United States, many women are seen as more moderate if they’re Republicans and more “strident” if they are Democrats, Stavrianos says. That’s helped McMorris Rodgers’s image in the past. But her mantra—that Republicans must “modernize” and “not moderate”—is a key part of understanding her deeply conservative voting record. It’s a record couched in rhetoric designed to be accessible, particularly to the female voters McMorris Rodgers’s past communication strategies have sought to appeal to. It’s also one that’s earned her a perfect rating from the Chamber of Commerce and a lifetime score of 87 from the American Conservative Union.

Her conservative voting record is not unexpected in a member of the House Republican leadership. “You don’t ascend in Republican leadership by being a moderate. You ascend by falling into line and doing what the party tells you to,” says Christian Sinderman, a Democratic political consultant based in Washington.

She’s stuck by Trump, too. Though she’s been critical of his policy on tariffs, a hot-button issue in a district heavily reliant on the agriculture and aerospace industries, McMorris Rodgers has mainly helped push the president’s agenda through Congress. She’s also seemed loath to criticize him publicly.

Her district, while safely Republican, is less staunchly conservative than most of those represented by avid Trump allies. Yet McMorris Rodgers wavered even less than Paul Ryan after The Washington Post released the notorious Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, which many believed would sink the Trump campaign. She’s also helped spearhead the president’s legislative agenda, supporting his signature tax bill and the Affordable Care Act rollback last summer.

Stavrianos notes that McMorris Rodgers served as the vice chair of Trump’s transition team following the 2016 presidential election and was so seriously considered for interior secretary that some outlets painted the choice as effectively a done deal. (Ryan Zinke, then Montana’s sole member of the House, got the job instead.) Association with Trump is not likely to sink McMorris Rodgers in a district the president carried and in which he remains relatively popular, but like her role in the House leadership, the closeness can present challenges to a politician whose personal brand depends on being a local first.

Brown paints a contrast with McMorris Rodgers, portraying her opponent as a partisan too distracted by her leadership commitments to serve her constituents’ interests. Describing herself as a “practical progressive,” Brown emphasizes an ability to reach across the aisle to make deals. Republicans, perhaps predictably, argue that she is an out-of-touch liberal more suited to Seattle than Spokane. But they don’t deny that Brown is a talented campaigner. “Cathy knew she could not take Lisa Brown for granted. Even if her district is red, even if Lisa’s views were decidedly out of step with a lot of people, she wouldn’t take her for granted,” Schoesler says.

What is seen by many as McMorris Rodgers’s first misstep came in the weeks before the primary on August 7, when her campaign began hitting Brown with a barrage of ads criticized for what some viewed as fear-mongering tactics. In one leaflet mailed to Eastern Washington voters, a black-booted man stands in the foreground while a teddy bear, appearing vulnerable, is seen through his spread legs. The caption: “Liberal Lisa Brown chose to protect dangerous sex offenders instead of our children.” Another shows a distressed child cuddling a bear, bearing a similar message. In another, a young girl swings from a tree while a hooded man approaches.

An open letter signed by hundreds of health-care professionals called upon McMorris Rodgers to apologize to Brown and pull the ads. The spots refer to a 2011 bill that changed the calculation system for time under supervision for parolees and those imprisoned in county jails. It made a specific exception for sexual offenders, however. The bill drew bipartisan support. Andrew Godinich, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the ads “some of the most negative ads of a congressional race in the country.”

The second McMorris Rodgers gaffe became public two days after the primary, when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow released four clips recorded at a private, July 30 fundraiser in Spokane. The clips show Representative Devin Nunes of California, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and a vocal Trump ally, speaking about the need for the House to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Nunes appears to call House Republicans “the only ones” who can protect the president, and ties keeping the majority at the midterms directly to protecting Trump. When asked why he has not yet moved to impeach Rosenstein, Nunes cites other matters pending before the Senate. This is the only point on the tapes where McMorris Rodgers interjects, apparently to agree with Nunes that impeachment for Rosenstein rests on the Senate, before Nunes interrupts her mid-sentence, after just six words.

Brown says the tape raises questions about McMorris Rodgers’s commitment to the investigation into Russian collusion, but believes that the issue more significant for the election will be the perception that the congresswoman is bringing in “D.C. celebrities” for closed-door events. Dotzauer, echoing experts’ general view, said that the Nunes tape offered Brown the opportunity to “score some points,” but doubts the recording will prove pivotal.

Portraying McMorris Rodgers as an out-of-touch incumbent who is more interested in her leadership role than her constituents could be a winning strategy for Brown, however. But to make that work, she’ll have to break through McMorris Rodgers’s public image. To many, she remains “the girl from Kettle Falls”; in Todd Cranney’s words, she’s “as Eastern Washington as it gets.” But Brown might want to compete for that title, too.

The district has something of the early ’90s about it. It was made most famous by Speaker Foley’s 1994 defeat, during the so-called Republican Revolution. He became the first sitting speaker to lose reelection since William Pennington in 1860.

And then there’s the seat’s cornerstone pop-culture reference: Twin Peaks, the eerie police procedural cum mystic horror created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, is set in the district, five miles from Canada and 12 miles from the Idaho state line, not far from McMorris Rodgers’s childhood home in Kettle Falls. The TV show’s famed Douglas fir–strewn landscape descends into rolling hills in an agriculture-heavy area; wheat, peas, and the wine industry all have a firm presence. But there are also some urban cores, small- and mid-sized cities such as Spokane, Pullman, Walla Walla, and Colville, most of which have universities. Spokane itself boasts a large health-care industry. In the rural areas, frustration with tariffs could be a key factor in the race, while in the cities and suburbs, Brown’s ability to turn out the student vote and showcase moderate, bipartisan chops will be crucial in forming a winning coalition.

Fundraising figures give McMorris Rodgers an edge, but a less substantial one than a House leadership member might typically expect in a reelection bid. At the end of July, McMorris Rodgers led Brown in cash on hand by only $300,000, a narrow margin. She outspent Brown in the primary, too, pushing $2.7 million into the race so far compared with Brown’s $1.4 million. Experts think it’s unlikely that Brown will be able to compete with McMorris Rodgers on a dollar-for-dollar level. Still, McMorris Rodgers is known as a prodigious fund-raiser, and her relatively narrow lead over Brown is part of why national Democrats think the race is winnable. And the Spokane media markets aren’t particularly expensive, which Kondik says could even the footing between the two candidates.

For Brown to win the seat, she’ll need to drive up turnout in Spokane, her base, and likely also in areas around Pullman and Walla Walla. And, of course, Brown needs some of the anti-establishment spirit that struck Foley in 1994. She’s banking, to some extent, on the idea that the Fifth District is still a place that will expel a powerful incumbent. “Despite slow suburbanization of greater Spokane and some of the agriculture sector in Eastern Washington, there still remains a deep vein of populism and a jaundiced eye toward the establishment and entrenched politicians within the establishment, and that gives rise to an occasional upheaval,” Christian Sinderman says. It’s that dynamic that could provide Brown with the extra boost she would need to win a seat that does favor Republicans.

McMorris Rodgers’s campaign, on the other hand, hopes to point to tuition increases that were enacted during Brown’s time as the state Senate’s majority leader to help it win over some students. Her calculus is easier. She needs to portray herself as a local first, a representative who votes with the district, fits it well, and can get results in D.C. But that in itself presents challenges. Even in a district Trump won handedly, and where his approval rating remains 45 percent, higher than the national average, dissatisfaction with the capital—and with things like tariffs—could be enough to push some voters to the other option: Brown.

There’s something similar about the two candidates. Their campaigns both emphasize their candidate’s rural roots, note that they were the first in their families to go to college, and talk up legislative accomplishments. Those aren’t particularly hard to find after a combined 44 years in the state and federal legislatures. And both are women who have a proven track record managing legislators “that have a high estimation of themselves,” as Mark Schoesler—also a former state Senate majority leader—put it.

But if the Democrats’ fabled “blue wave” does engulf Washington State, it’s possible that McMorris Rodgers, almost certainly the highest-ranking Republican who would be defeated in such a situation (Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise both represent incredibly safe seats), would become the face of the loss. It’s not often that such a high-ranking member loses reelection. But then, the Fifth District knows that well. Just ask Tom Foley.