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Highest-Ranking Republican Woman Faces Tough Re-Election


A record number of women are running for the House this year. Less than a quarter of them are Republicans. One of those Republicans is Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state. She is the nation's top elected Republican woman. And she is facing her toughest campaign in more than a decade. That's in part because her role in GOP leadership ties her closely to President Trump. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports from Spokane, Wash.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: If 2018 is the next year of the woman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers does not want Republican women left out. She's the only woman in the party's top leadership in Congress. But in this year of unprecedented political enthusiasm among women, McMorris Rodgers is facing a real challenge even in a reliably Republican district.

CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS: So much of the focus has been on the Democrat side and the women that are a part of - running for office on the Democrat ticket that we have not - there has not been the coverage on the Republican side.

SNELL: In Washington, D.C., McMorris Rodgers is at the top of the mostly male House GOP conference and was on Trump's short list for interior secretary. In Washington state, she's facing Democrats who say her leadership role makes her a rubber stamp for Trump in a year when he's seen as a serious political liability among women voters.

MCMORRIS RODGERS: This has been a hostile political environment.

SNELL: She's even seen that in the grocery store. Last year, a man approached her in the produce aisle after she joined GOP leaders in voting to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

MCMORRIS RODGERS: And he announced, Cathy McMorris Rodgers - she's here. We have a celebrity in our midst. She has great health care. She wants to take your health care away.

SNELL: But that frustration is a sign of the enthusiasm among Democrats. After years of mulling a run for Congress, former state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown decided that this was the year to challenge McMorris Rodgers. Brown's campaign centers in part on tying McMorris Rodgers to Trump.

LISA BROWN: It's not my message. It's just actual reality. She is the party leadership and works to reinforce party loyalty. And she's 90 - 95-plus percent with the Trump administration.

SNELL: McMorris Rodgers' take on her own role in leadership changes. Sometimes she talks about it as an asset.


MCMORRIS RODGERS: Cathy McMorris Rodgers is on the leadership team in the House for the 5th Congressional District for Eastern Washington. She is right there when the decisions are being made.

SNELL: But she also has ads distancing herself from the establishment in D.C.


MCMORRIS RODGERS: Two Washingtons worlds apart - different values, different priorities. Taking on the D.C. machine isn't always easy. But I work for you, not them.

SNELL: It's a tricky balance, particularly because she could try to move up in leadership when House Speaker Paul Ryan leaves. So McMorris Rodgers is trying to reframe the women's movement into a celebration of conservative women who feel left out, women like Bonnie Quinn.

BONNIE QUINN: I'm tired of not having my views respected. You know, in the day of the women's voice matters, we haven't. Our voice has not mattered.

SNELL: Quinn was one of more than two dozen women who came to a gym in Spokane Valley to share wine, snacks and give each other a political boost, all while committing donations to the McMorris Rodgers campaign. The gathering had the vibe more like a book club or a church group than a traditional fundraiser. And that's the point. It's part of a bigger theme in her re-election campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I know her, and I trust her. Cathy empowers local working women, and that is why Cathy represents me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I know her. She's my friend. Cathy represents me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And that is why Cathy represents me.

SNELL: She's trying to show that you can advocate for women without being part of a liberal resistance. Her campaign thinks a lot of women here agree. This year, about a quarter of the Republican women in the House are already leaving. Several others are in danger of losing re-election. Keeping McMorris Rodgers in Congress and at the top of the GOP is crucial to proving that women have a place in the Republican Party. Kelsey Snell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "VAN GOGH SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.