CONGRESSWOMAN JENNIFER DUNN has been as faithful a soldier as any to outgoing House speaker Newt Gingrich. As conference vice chair, she described him recently as "truly a great man who has laid the foundation for the Republicans to enter the next millennium as the majority party."
But now that Gingrich isn't going to make it to the next millennium as speaker, Dunn sees an "opportunity for change" in the party leadership. So she said earlier this week as she announced her bid to become House majority leader, the GOP's no. 2 position there, challenging current majority leader Dick Armey and Seattle Seahawk turned-congressman Steve Largent, who is also running for the post. House Republicans are scheduled to vote on all leadership positions on November 18.
While the soon to be four-term Bellevue congresswoman doesn't offer substantive change, she does offer a new image for a male-dominated party suffering from a gender gap among voters. As Republicans grasp for a way to revitalize themselves after the elections, they may see a quick fix in Dunn. "It would break a lot of stereotypes," says Peter Schalestock, a spokesperson for GOP Congressman Rick White, who lost his seat last week.
"It's not just that she's a woman," Schalestock hastens to add, "but the fact that she has a somewhat more measured approach. She's less strident than some people at the front." While her message is the same, Schalestock says, Dunn has a more "compassionate" way of "explaining it to people."
Take for instance an October press release from Dunn on her party's work on tax cuts and the budget. Reasoning that Republicans were striving to save Social Security and put more money in the hands of older taxpayers, including women, the release was titled "House Republicans Help Women Live Independent and Secure Lives as They Grow Older."
A single mom, Dunn has also courted women's allegiances by promoting breast cancer awareness and—in a rare controversial stand within her party—proclaiming herself pro-choice. Her support for abortion rights is extremely qualified, however. She has voted to prohibit the use of Food and Drug Administration funding for testing abortion pills and to ban so-called "partial-birth" abortions.
Republican King County Council member Rob McKenna describes Dunn as "pro-choice but not a feminist—like most women in this country."
While Dunn's gender has clearly helped propel her to the top, longtime supporters point out that she is also a savvy and tough politician who, they believe, could help bring together a party that has alienated both its conservative and moderate wings. They recall that Dunn expertly accomplished a similar task for the state party in her 11 years as chair before ascending to Congress.
Dunn proved something else the very first time she ran for state chair: She counts her votes carefully before leaping into the fray. GOP political consultant Brett Bader recounts Dunn's legendary meeting with her rival at the time, Duane Berentson. While Berentson was a well-regarded former legislator, Dunn was then a stay-at-home mom best known as the ex-wife of party stalwart Dennis Dunn. Berentson went to the meeting to talk Dunn out of the race. She replied by pulling out a list of written endorsements so long that Berenston ended up dropping out instead.
One presumes that Dunn has done her homework before announcing her candidacy for majority leader. And she may yet rise even farther. Capitol Hill insiders say that for several years now, Dunn has been talked about as a likely choice to House speaker—if not now, then soon.