Opinion: Columnists

Will a woman set the stage for creating tomorrow's GOP?

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Now that the costly Romney presidential defeat is history and Republican Party soul-searchers have blanched as they stare at the risk of extinction, House GOP members Wednesday took a first step toward averting doom.

They elected a chairman of the House Republican Conference with a rare profile for the party that struggled to attract female voters: a young mother from the Northwest, charming, hard-working for her district, with street cred among conservatives. She's pro-life, a defense hawk and has a lifetime rating of 92 from the American Conservative Union.

The conference's new chairman is Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. This makes her the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress and the fourth-highest-ranking House Republican, after Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.

The House Republican Conference is the party caucus organization. It meets regularly in closed sessions to set legislative agendas, select committee members and chairs and floor leaders. It is a real power center within the party.

Elected to Congress in 2004, McMorris Rodgers represents the huge 5th District of Washington state, which covers all or part of 12 counties -- nearly the entire eastern third of the state. It is a country of rolling wheat fields, fruit orchards, vineyards, timber- and silver-loaded mountains, two Indian reservations (1.5 million acres), Fairchild Air Force Base, a rail hub at Spokane, and manufacturing, high tech and biotech firms -- competing interests demanding a strong congressional presence.

In her freshman term, McMorris Rodgers chaired the National Task Force on Improving the National Environmental Policy Act -- a law with staggering economic impacts -- and held NEPA oversight hearings across the country.

By her second term, McMorris Rodgers' family history had become well-known. A descendant of Oregon Trail pioneers, raised on a farm, she worked for 13 years in the family-owned and -operated business, the Peachcrest Fruit Basket Orchard and Fruit Stand, in Kettle Falls, Wash.

This homespun backstory seemed to clash with her high-tech launch of sunshine.gop.gov, an open-government website that tracked all Troubled Asset Relief Program funds, stimulus spending and the congressional budget process. This was part of her advocacy for free-enterprise solutions to budget and debt crises.

Cathy McMorris married retired naval Cmdr. Brian Rodgers in 2006. They have two children, one with Down syndrome, which led the congresswoman to co-found the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus.

After she was appointed vice chairwoman of the conference in 2008, her leadership initiative on new and social media "helped lead the GOP to social media dominance, from 30% in 2009 to 90% in 2012," according to her conference chairman candidate packet.

Her "Dear Colleague" candidate letter noted, "On the political front, I've helped recruit stellar candidates, raised over $1,000,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, contributed over $300,000 to candidates and traveled to 51 Congressional districts in 22 states" -- perhaps her Executive MBA at work.

What can we expect of her leadership? As she told CNN, "The Republican Party has to make it a priority to take our values, take our vision to every corner of this country, to every demographic group, and I am confident that we can do it."

What about creating a Republican majority? She pointed to a montage of media comments: "Whether it's Hispanics, whether it's women, whether it's young people, we have to let them know we care," McMorris Rodgers said. "For Hispanics, we're pro-immigration, for comprehensive reform, and most Hispanics are pro-life and pro-family.

"For women, to be told that our party fails to protect women is offensive. To be accused of denying access to women's health is absurd. For the young, we're for sound economic policy that creates jobs for their future. For the American people, we intend to get results and to keep the American Dream alive for generations to come."

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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