When Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers missed the Lilac Parade in Spokane, Wash., last year, George Nethercutt worried that she wasn’t paying enough attention to her hometown voters.
“You’ve got to be waving to the people in the crowd, not spending all of your time in D.C.,” said Nethercutt, a former 10-year House member from Washington state.
He had some friendly advice for the woman he recruited to succeed him: “She has to be careful. I’ve said it publicly and I’ve said it privately: She’s got to pay attention to people at home.”
A day after Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia fell to defeat in a primary election, Nethercutt predicted that incumbent members of Congress were making airline reservations at a record pace, rushing to get back home and connect with constituents.
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“I bet people are saying, `God, I got to get home or else this is going to happen to me,’ ’’ he said.
For her part, McMorris Rodgers, 45, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, said Wednesday she’ll sit out the leadership shuffle caused by Cantor’s departure. The fifth-term congresswoman currently holds the No. 4 ranking position in House leadership as the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.
“After much encouragement from my colleagues, conversations with my family, and many prayers, I have decided to remain Conference Chair at this time,” she said in a statement released shortly before Cantor announced his resignation next month as majority leader.
Riva Litman, her spokeswoman, said McMorris Rodgers’ “first priority has always been the people of Eastern Washington.”
“They inspire and motivate her every day as she fights for solutions to make their lives better,” Litman said.
As official Washington reacted to Cantor’s loss, Nethercutt, now an attorney living in McLean, Va., recounted his experience. He knows a thing or two about knocking off powerful House leaders. Twenty years ago, he defeated Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, marking the first defeat of a sitting Speaker since 1860.
Nethercutt said he turned Foley’s experience against him with the motto: “We don’t need a Speaker. We need a listener.”
“People got it — I think maybe that’s the case in Eric’s case,” Nethercutt said.
When he decided to give up his House seat in 2004 to run unsuccessfully against Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, Nethercutt he said he first called McMorris Rodgers because she had a good reputation, was popular and had shown an ability as a state legislator to connect with conservatives in his district.
“And no matter what they say, it’s hard to run against a female,” he said. “And so I thought that might give her the edge.”
He gives McMorris high marks for her work in Congress.
In January, McMorris Rodgers got the most visible assignment of her congressional career, giving the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union message.
And next month, she’ll be keynote speaker, along with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, at a technology conference in San Francisco.
But when McMorris Rodgers missed the Spokane parade in May of last year, Nethercutt noted that two Democratic incumbents who weren’t even up for election showed up: Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Maria Cantwell.
Litman said McMorris Rodgers missed the weekend parade because she would have only been able to stay in the district for 36 hours. House votes had already been scheduled on both the Friday before the parade and the following Monday, she said.
Litman said she made two trips to the district that month, when she could stay longer: "She likes to maximize her resources by making sure she can stay home for as long as possible when she's there.”
Nethercutt said House leaders often have demands placed on them that keep them away from home, and he said that’s the lesson of Cantor’s loss.
“To me it’s a powerful lesson to all incumbents, but particularly leadership,” he said. “You can’t ignore the people at home, because they vote.”