Mitt Romney's wife Ann may not be the only "secret weapon" the GOP's presumptive nominee is planning to deploy this fall to try to surmount his embarrassing double-digit gender gap with President Obama among women voters.
Another may be Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the vice-chair of the House Republican conference, and the party's fourth most powerful official, whom some GOP insiders believe could end up being tapped as Romney's running mate.
Never heard of her? You're not alone. She first won election to Washington's fifth district in 2004 and has risen steadily up the GOP ranks ever since, earning a solid reputation on both sides of the aisle for her stalwart work on several important House committees, including Armed Services and Energy, in addition to serving in 2008-2010 as co-chair of the bipartisan House Women's Caucus, which has pushed, among other things, for pay equity, tougher child support enforcement, and more federal and state funding for women's health programs.
But until recently, despite her otherwise impeccable conservative credentials (including a 96 percent rating from the American Conservative Union), Rodgers' rise has been overshadowed by the emergence of more flamboyant Tea Party-aligned figures like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), as well as by two just-elected Republican female governors, Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Susana Martinez in New Mexico.
But that's probably about to change. The political stars of Palin and Bachmann are rapidly fading, and Haley, though still mentioned as a VP possibility, has been criticized in South Carolina by both parties for currying favor with business interests in Georgia at the expense of her own state. And in contrast to Rodgers, who, by all appearances, is a highly effective Romney "surrogate," Haley largely failed to rally GOP voters behind Romney in the South Carolina GOP primary, allowing rival Gingrich to win a stunning upset.
In fact, like her fellow Indian-American governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who completely muffed his own national political debut -- and probably killed his shot at the VP slot -- with a miserable State of the Union rebuttal to Obama in 2009, Haley now languishes in the Republican doghouse and probably won't be let out anytime soon.
By contrast, Rodgers' exhibited considerable political skill last weekend when she appeared on Meet the Press to do battle with popular MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and recently disgraced Democratic political consultant Hilary Rosen. It's the first time a national television audience has gotten a close look at the four-term congresswoman, and even outgunned, she managed to hold her own. Maddow, who's no shrinking violet herself, of course, quickly went on the offensive, suggesting that Rodgers, despite her gender, was defending a GOP candidate with a horrible record on women and virtually no chance of broadening his appeal to female voters. Rodgers, she implied, was little more than a political fig leaf -- in effect, a female "Uncle Tom."
But Rodgers, clearly anticipating the attack, quickly struck back, reminding viewers that in 2010 the GOP had actually beaten the Democrats among women for the first time since Ronald Reagan. Women, like most voters, Rodgers insisted, care mostly about the state of the economy, including the escalating national debt, rising health care costs, and persistent joblessness, and the effect that all are having on their families. And the Democrats, she argued, had largely invented a Republican "war on women" to distract female voters away from Obama's policy failures that were actually hurting women the most.
If the ensuing debate remained largely civil, it's probably due to the grudging respect that Rodgers, just 42, seems to engender even from her critics, especially, it seems, from women. She may be staunchly pro-life, but as the former House Women's Caucus co-chair, she also has real "street cred" on women's issues, including her support for a legislative compromise on the Violence Against Women Act, which other Republicans, including her fellow VP aspirant Marco Rubio, have opposed. Rodgers champions the gains that women are making in education, business, and politics, and though she did vote against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay for Women Act -- a "bad bill," she says, but something of a litmus test for Democratic women -- she insists that she genuinely supports the principle of "equal pay for equal work," and is genuinely concerned about employment and pay discrimination.
And it's not just wavering female voters Rodgers might help the party woo. She could also help Romney, a foreign and defense policy neophyte, win over another key voting constituency: military veterans. While Republicans tend to clean up with the 4 million active-duty soldiers who are heavily concentrated as absentee voters in battleground states like Florida, the nation's 23 million veterans tend to divide their allegiances more evenly, and in recent years have tended to tilt more Democratic. Rodgers, though, has been on the front-lines of every major pro-veteran legislative initiative since she first took office, earning her a 100 percent rating from two leading veterans groups (American Veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America). And in 2006, she married a retired U.S. Navy commander with Republican party connections, which has added to her political cachet, while bolstering her image as a defense hawk.
How likely is Rodgers to get the VP nod? About as likely as Palin once was -- but in the end, of course, Palin did, for much the same reason that Romney might end up picking Rodgers. Still, with the fall-out from the Palin VP fiasco still so fresh, the GOP may be reluctant to walk down Pander Road again, even if the party's female running mate this time turns out to be a seasoned pro, not a rock star, and one who, despite her youth, can clearly handle herself on the issues and on the stump in a way that Palin never could.
But, of course even if Rodgers does get the nod -- a prospect that may grow, as more prominent VP prospects pull back -- putting a highly competent woman on the GOP ticket may not be enough to offset the impression that Romney's Mormon-inflected vision of America is simply too far removed from the one shaped, ineluctably, by the rise of modern feminism. Rodgers, in fact, would still only be the VP, and while the job's clearly grown in importance in recent years, it remains, constitutionally at least, an afterthought. Unless Romney were to offer a full-throated endorsement of some of Rodgers' more pro-woman stances, naming her VP would likely leave the impression that she's at best a potential figurehead, chosen more for her tactical value, than a reflection of the candidate's own evolving views, which, in the end, are the ones that matter most.
But make no mistake: Rodgers is no religious yahoo or strident Tea Party advocate. Her demure but solid presence near the top of the Romney the ticket -- if not actually on it -- may well keep some female independents disaffected from Romney open to further argument, especially if the economy continues to sputter. And in the longer run, Rodgers' entrance onto the national stage should serve as a warning to Democrats that the era of "glitz and ditz" ushered in by Palin and her look-alikes -- failed U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell in Delaware readily comes to mind -- may be rapidly drawing to a close. Like other up-and-coming GOP representatives, including Jaime Herrera, one of the new breed of conservative Latinos now being actively recruited by Republicans for higher office -- Rodgers is completely changing the face of the GOP "woman."
Which means that even if Obama does retain his lead with female voters and ends up prevailing this November, successfully stigmatizing the GOP on gender issues is likely to get much harder down the road.