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Republicans pitch Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers as a rising star

Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau • Updated Jan 29, 2014 at 12:17 PM

WASHINGTON (MCT) – On Tuesday night, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers will join a long list of big names who have given the opposition response to the president's State of the Union speech since the tradition began 48 years ago.

Among them: Republican Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan in 1966, Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota in 1975, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1985 and Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas in 1996. Women have been tapped 12 percent of the time.

On Friday, McMorris Rodgers posted a photograph of herself on Instagram holding her speech in one hand as she practiced and her 2-month-old daughter, Brynn, in the other.

"It really doesn't get much better than this!" she said in her post.

The 44-year-old congresswoman from Spokane, Wash., begins the new year riding high on Capitol Hill as one of the Republicans' hottest players. Since she joined Congress in 2005, McMorris Rodgers has become the highest-ranking woman in the House of Representatives leadership, fourth overall. She's taking a lead role in helping to shape the message as the GOP tries again to overhaul the health care plan that Congress passed in 2010.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post included McMorris Rodgers on a list of nine women to watch in politics this year, putting her in the same group as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It all builds on a resume that gained national attention in 2012, when McMorris Rodgers found herself mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

On Tuesday, she will become the 12th woman to give the opposition speech and only the second chosen from the House Republican ranks, joining the late Rep. Jennifer Dunn, also of Washington state, who got the nod in 1999. Two Washington state Democrats took the assignment, too: Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1970 and then-Gov. Gary Locke in 2003.

Historically, the parties often have used the occasion to showcase rising politicians. Last year, Republicans featured Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and in 2011, they chose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

With McMorris Rodgers following Rubio, the GOP clearly is trying to appeal to Hispanics and women, two groups of voters the party had trouble reaching in recent elections, said Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.

"Mostly this is a reflection of the Republican Party attempting to diversify their image," he said Monday. "That's the main reason they picked her, not because she's from Washington state. The Republican Party is never going to be able to be competitive in Washington state, but it's a national platform and it gives them an opportunity."

Overall, 102 people have been chosen for the job since 1966, according to data collected by the Senate Historical Office. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for groups to do it: In 1972, for example, 11 Democratic senators and House members hosted a 53-minute program to respond to President Richard Nixon's speech, even fielding phone calls from the public.

McMorris Rodgers is getting lots of star treatment from GOP leaders, who are touting her rural and family ties.

She grew up on a farm and worked at her family's orchard in Kettle Falls, Wash. In November, she set the congressional record for motherhood, becoming the first member of Congress to give birth three times while in office. Her 6-year-old son has Down syndrome, which led her to co-found the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus.

"Cathy McMorris Rodgers is proof that with humility, hard work and dedication, you can overcome any obstacle _ a story to which many Americans can relate," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said last week in announcing her selection, praising her "fierce belief in life and liberty."

Back in Spokane, McMorris Rodgers took her share of heat in October when the federal government shut down. And critics say her conservative approaches and close ties to Boehner have done little to help her district.

"McMorris Rodgers is portrayed as the caring mother of Congress, yet the policies she espouses ... hurt children and middle-class families. ... Cathy does not represent us in Spokane, and she won't tomorrow," said Jim CastroLang, a pastor and chairman of the Spokane County Democrats.

Farm workers and supporters of an immigration overhaul planned to apply more pressure Tuesday to McMorris Rodgers. They said they planned to stage a rally in front of her office in Walla Walla, Wash., encouraging her to use her speech to push for changes in immigration laws.

Staffers said McMorris Rodgers had been too busy to grant interviews, but the congresswoman did send an email and biographical video to her backers, saying she's "humbled and honored" by the assignment.

"It's been an amazing journey from Kettle Falls to Congress, and I'm excited to share my perspective _ as a farm girl, legislator and a mom _ with all of you," McMorris Rodgers said.

On Monday, aides said they were preparing for a late night Tuesday. They want to make sure their boss is well-rested, staying hydrated and getting familiar with the teleprompter she will use at an undisclosed location inside the Capitol. They were trying to keep her on a normal schedule, working in rehearsals as time allowed.

"It's exciting for her," said Nate Hodson, the communications director for the House Republican Conference.

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