House Republicans elected Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., to be Congress’ top spokeswoman on women’s issues Wednesday, replacing New York’s Susan Molinari as vice chairwoman of the Republican Conference.
By a vote of 129-85, Dunn defeated Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle, who ran on a campaign challenging the effectiveness of the House leadership and Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“It validates that there is room for women in the Republican ranks and in the leadership of the House,” Dunn said. “It was not so much about the message, but who is the best messenger.”
Dunn, 55, said her elevation effectively takes her out of a race for the U.S. Senate in the 1998 GOP primary against Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., and forces Republicans uneasy with Smith’s maverick politics to accept her or find another candidate to challenge Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
Republican Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane will decide whether to run for the Senate by Labor Day, and Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland was expected to announce his campaign this week.
“I said to George before the election, ‘You know what’s going to happen if I win. It’s going to be up to you in the Senate race,”’ Dunn said.
While Dunn’s election to vice chair of the Republican Conference is simply a step from the No. 7 to the No. 6 spot in party leadership, it vaults her into the highest-ranking position ever held by a woman in the House of Representatives.
Dunn’s victory also is a plus for Gingrich and House leaders who had backed her. In addition to linking Dunn to what he called a troubled Republican leadership, Nussle also had sought to portray Dunn as a weak conservative - particularly because of her support for legalized abortion.
The position of vice chairwoman of the conference has been loosely defined, but Gingrich assigned the job specific responsibility for bridging the gender gap and for highlighting how Republican values and issues are good for women.
Dunn’s predecessor made the position a high-profile job that landed her on national television and won her the keynote address at the Republican National Convention last year. Molinari quit to join CBS News.
The election marks a swift rise for Dunn, the former Washington state GOP chairwoman who is in only her third term. There has even been talk that she could someday become the first woman speaker of the House.
“It shows that the Northwest is edging back into power in Congress, both on the Senate side and the House side,” said James Moore, a political scientist at the University of Portland. “With the end of (longtime Oregon Sens. Mark) Hatfield and (Bob) Packwood and (former Speaker) Tom Foley’s defeat, the Northwest has been painfully out of the loop. It bodes well for someone willing to put in the time and the years and build the political capital as Jennifer Dunn is doing.”
The position ranks below many committee chairmanships in terms of power. Nevertheless, it gives Dunn access to leadership meetings and increases her ability to raise money from lobbying interests that seek access to powerful representatives.
Earlier this year, Dunn was elected secretary of the House Republican Conference, the official name for the 228 House Republicans. The conference generally meets at least once a week to discuss policy issues and political strategy, and to settle differences.
xxxx DOWN IN POLLS As Rep. Jennifer Dunn was climbing to the next leadership rung, a new national poll by CBS News and the New York Times showed the public disapproving of Congress’ performance 55 percent to 34 percent, while voicing approval of President Clinton 56 to 32. Even Republicans polled gave Congress negative marks. It followed similar results in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. The survey gave voters details of rival tax cut plans of President Clinton and House Republicans. Voters favored Clinton’s proposal 2-1.