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Highest-ranking GOP congresswoman faces closest race yet in 'year of the woman'

'Year of the woman'? Maybe not for the GOP
Credit: Ted S. Warren, AP
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., right, looks over at Lisa Brown, her Democratic challenger, following a debate Sept. 19, 2018, in Spokane, Wash.
Credit: Ted S. Warren, AP
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., right, looks over at Lisa Brown, her Democratic challenger, following a debate Sept. 19, 2018, in Spokane, Wash.

SPOKANE, Wash. – Billboards of women, declaring: "Cathy represents ME." Television ads about being a working mom. The same theme in literature for door-to-door campaigning, featuring a family photo on the back and a photo of nearly 40 women inside. 

It's clear U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers understands her target audience in her battle to hold her seat in Congress. 

Some are calling 2018 the "year of the woman." Yet McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking GOP woman in Congress, faces a tight race for re-election. Her challenger? Another woman, of course.

McMorris Rodgers, 49, of Spokane, chairs the House Republican Conference and has represented eastern Washington state for 14 years. This year, she faces 62-year-old Lisa Brown, the former top Democrat in the state Senate, who recently served as chancellor of Washington State University's Spokane campus. 

As a Democrat, Brown is better positioned to take advantage of a renewed women's movement that emerged in response to President Donald Trump's election in 2016. After all, McMorris Rodgers generally supports Trump.

"The energy in this cycle has really worked to the advantage of Democrats generally and Democratic women specifically – so much so that it could endanger a powerful Republican woman incumbent," said Kelly Dittmar, of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Credit: Ted S. Warren, AP
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., shakes hands as she walks in the 2018 Fourth of July Parade in Johnson, Wash.

More women, on both sides

McMorris Rodgers refuses to cede ground with women voters. Being a working mom is part of her brand: She is the only member of Congress to have given birth three times while in office, to Cole, Grace and Brynn. Cole has Down syndrome, another personal matter that comes up frequently with McMorris Rodgers' constituents and as part of policy discussions. 

Brown also is a working mom. Her son, Lucas Brookbank Brown, is 26 now, but she featured his childhood in one of her first television ads. She brought him to the Legislature for a late vote, she explains in the commercial, but was told children were not allowed.

In all, a record number of women filed to run for Congress this year. More than 260 are still in the running – 202 of them Democrats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Brown is leveraging that momentum. At a late-September precanvassing gathering for volunteers, some of the 50 people in attendance had driven from as far as Seattle, more than four hours away, to help Brown's cause.

"A lot of our volunteers are women, and I think they've just had enough," said Petra Hoy, 51, a Spokane Valley community organizer. "We've been kind of preparing for this our whole lives, running the PTO, running the car washes."

Credit: Ted S. Warren, AP
Lisa Brown, the Democratic opponent to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., speaks during a candidates forum in Colfax, Wash., July 17, 2018.

That momentum has meant McMorris Rodgers faces a tougher race this year, the congresswoman acknowledges.

Still, McMorris Rodgers says, "I have more women who are supporting me, too."

Fed up with attacks on their powerful friend, 20 Spokane businesswomen and leaders this year started hosting events they called "Cathy Represents ME," bringing other women to meet the congresswoman in person. 

“She hadn’t really gone out and sought after the female vote. We decided we needed to do that for her," Spokane financial adviser Melissa Williams said.

The women wanted to hold positive conversations to combat name-calling or attacks. For instance, since McMorris Rodgers has her young children in school in the Washington, D.C., area, the women would push back against the notion that she doesn't live in eastern Washington state. They'd tell stories of her involvement in their lives in Spokane and what they call her quiet influence in the region.

They've had five events so far and plan another this week, each with 80 to 100 women who come to meet the congresswoman.

'A mom's heart' or a 'leader'?

Spend some time with McMorris Rodgers, her friends say, and you'll see what they're talking about. In a meeting this month with veterans who are students at Washington State University, McMorris Rodgers reacted with a mom's instincts to meeting a veteran whose brothers were all Marines, too.

"What did your mom think about all this?" she said. "That has to be hard on a mom's heart."

McMorris Rodgers uses the mom angle as a weapon, too. Ads accusing Brown of being soft on sex offenders seemed targeted at mothers. (And they're deceptive, Brown's campaign says. She voted for the final version of one of the bills in question and only opposed the other because it didn't enact effective protections for children, the campaign says. She voted for the state's current limits on sex offenders in 2005.)

Credit: Michael Conroy, AP
Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaks at the Indiana Republican Party Fall Dinner in Indianapolis Oct. 12, 2018.

Working mom is an effective brand, GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said. 

"It’s important that our Congress represents the people of this country, and there are a lot of moms out there," McDaniel told USA TODAY. "That’s an important factor that adds to Cathy’s relatability to the voters she represents.”

But, McDaniel added, McMorris Rodgers is more than just her gender.

"I also wouldn’t just vote for someone because they’re a woman. You’ve got to look at their policies. And we’re not a monolithic group of women," McDaniel said.

As if to illustrate the point, Winning for Women, a GOP organization focused on electing Republican women, is running a six-figure TV ad in support off McMorris Rodgers focused on clean energy policies and shared exclusively with USA TODAY. 

Brown agrees McMorris Rodgers is more than just a mom, but she disagrees on the effectiveness of the policies the Republican supports.

“It’s one thing to be a woman leader. It’s another thing to lead on issues that matter to women, and that’s what I have emphasized,” Brown said. She cited issues such as her support for abortion rights, which McMorris Rodgers opposes.

However, it's Brown's record on the issues that could end up hurting her in the district, which has been held by Republicans since then-Speaker Tom Foley lost a bid for re-election in 1994. Unlike many of the other Democratic candidates across the country who are running for office for the first time, Brown has a long legislative record – and it's progressive, said Dave Wasserman, House editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“Very few Republican incumbents have the luxury of running against a 20-year legislator with a liberal record," he said. "That could be what ends up aiding McMorris Rodgers."

In reality, neither woman mentions traditional women's issues such as abortion in conversations with voters – at least, those issues didn't come up once when a USA TODAY reporter followed both candidate's door-to-door efforts this fall. 

Instead, both candidates are campaigning on issues such as health care – often sharing the same angle or touting the same accomplishment. 

Brown points to her recent role at Washington State University, where she launched a medical school in Spokane. McMorris Rodgers touts the new medical school too. She introduced legislation that led to an increase in federal money for teaching clinics such as the one in Spokane.

They differ on what to do about President Barack Obama's health care law. But both candidates are concerned about the cutback in hours at the local Veterans Affairs emergency room – a prominent issue in a region whose top employer is Fairchild Air Force Base, outside Spokane.

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Credit: Tyler Tjomsland, AP
Vice President Mike Pence exits Air Force Two after visiting with Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers at Signature Flight Support at Spokane International Airport Oct. 2, 2018, in Spokane, Wash. Pence came to downtown Spokane to stump for McMorris Rodgers, who faces a strong challenge this year from Democrat Lisa Brown.

It comes down to Trump

One way the two candidates are different: their views of Trump.

McMorris Rodgers says she has pushed back against some of Trump's tariffs. Still, she generally backs his policies. In door-to-door campaigning, she credited him with an economic boom and said she was pleased his embattled Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, would be confirmed after accusations of sexual assault.

Brown, on the other hand, used the news event to condemn Trump. She criticized his behavior before the justice was confirmed, when Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh's accuser, for some of her memory of the alleged assault.

McMorris Rodgers' support for Trump, and her status as a leader in his party, hurts her with some voters. That's unfair, said Laura Renz, 52, a retired optician. She and a few other women picketed last month at a Brown campaign event, bringing signs supporting their congresswoman.

Those who are disillusioned with McMorris Rodgers are "focusing on Trump. They're not focusing on what she can do," Renz said. Any hopes that a Democratic Congress will impeach Trump, she added, are unrealistic.

Some constituents argue McMorris Rodgers can indeed do more. 

Air Force Staff Sgt. Kyle Norbert commended McMorris Rodgers for her bipartisan work for the military during a meeting this month with veterans and military members who are students at Washington State University. "I just would like to encourage you to work in that bipartisan manner on social issues," said Norbert, 30, who is studying astrophysics.

Despite all the news about Trump's divisive tweets, McMorris Rodgers told him, about two-thirds of the bills Trump has signed have had bipartisan support. McMorris Rodgers did acknowledge division in the U.S. over racial issues and told of her participation in local roundtables related to race.

She didn't dodge that issue, Norbert, who is black, said after the meeting. But so much more is at stake. He mentioned the legality of abortion in all states, the treatment of child immigrants and the Kavanaugh situation.

"It would be great to see a little bit of courage, especially when she has an opportunity on a national scale to keep some of her countrymen and women accountable," he said. "If you're not speaking up and holding each other accountable, you're kind of an accomplice to it."

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