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‘I want to be a majority party.’ Ann Wagner’s plan to save the suburbs for the GOP

Ann Wagner is painfully aware that the Republican party has a women problem. And a minority problem. And an independents problem. And a suburban problem.

The 56-year-old GOP congresswoman from Missouri is characteristically blunt about the consequences for her party if it does not fix those problems — and fast.

“Well, we’re not going to be a majority party if we don’t,” Wagner said. “And I want to be a majority party,”

So Wagner is recruiting women and candidates of color. She is raising money to help them win primaries. And she is organizing her fellow Republicans to push legislation tailored to the concerns of suburban voters: GOP-driven plans to help save for retirement, pay for child care, reduce traffic congestion and mitigate climate change.

For Wagner, it’s not just a theoretical exercise. Her own political future could be at stake. Can a Republican woman who represents a purely suburban district not only survive but thrive in the Trump era? The numbers are not encouraging.

In three previous contests, Wagner coasted to victory with huge double-digit margins, as much as 30%. Last year, she held off Democratic newcomer Cort VanOstran by just 4%.

Republicans lost control of the House, and Wagner is one of just 13 Republican women left. She is also one of the last surviving GOP members to represent a purely suburban district.

“We lost 40, 41 seats and most of them were in suburban areas,” Wagner said. “Now in a midterm election whatever president’s in power loses some 30-odd seats. But where I saw concerns was the loss wasn’t just suburban women, it was suburban men and independents also.”

President Donald Trump, Wagner admits, isn’t helping. Or more specifically, his tone isn’t helping. She’s a fan of the strong economy , and credits him for it. She votes with Trump 96.7% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, a website that tracks how often members of Congress vote with or against the president.

“If he could just stop tweeting,” Wagner said. “The good gets drowned out, is the point.”

Over and over again she hears the same complaints from constituents about Trump’s crude language — particularly his tweets.

“Yeah that can be a turnoff, I think, to a lot of voters out there,” she said. “I’ve taken exception with it in the past. I believe that as a public servant and someone who is privileged to hold the public trust, that I should be calling people to their highest and best, not their lowest and least.”

Wagner disavowed Trump in 2016 after release of the Access Hollywood tape that showed him boasting about sexually assaulting women. She got back on board when it became evident he wasn’t dropping out. But some in her party see her break with Trump, however brief, as a liability should she seek statewide office in Missouri, where Trump won by nearly 20%. Wagner’s own district went for Trump in 2016 by a margin of 10.3 points

But nationally Hillary Clinton beat Trump among women voters, 54% to 41%, and college graduates 52% to 42% according to CNN exit polls. She also won blacks, Latinos and Asians by large margins.

Wagner believes anti-Trump sentiment was not the only factor that narrowed her margins and helped to fuel Democratic enthusiasm and fundraising in 2018. The marquee Senate race between Josh Hawley and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill also created headwinds. McCaskill focused money and manpower on turning out suburban voters for the Democratic ticket. (Hawley ended up losing her district, although he defeated McCaskill statewide.)

When Wagner realized what was happening on Election Night, she became determined to do something about it.

As former co-chair of the Republican National Committee and former chair of the Missouri GOP, Wagner considered herself well qualified to run for chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of the House Republican caucus. A prodigious fundraiser and an experienced female leader from the suburbs, she felt she had a lot to offer the party to help win back the House in 2020.

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, had a different plan. Wagner withdrew her name and Republicans instead chose Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minnesota.

“Well I think the leader’s very political and he wanted to be very deeply involved in the running of the NRCC,” Wagner said. “I do things my way, and I’m happy to be a team player. I work with others — you have to in this business and many others — but if I’m going to chair something, I’m going to be the one that’s in charge. So we had a difference of opinion there.” Wagner said it was her choice not to put her name in nomination.

To Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, it was poor optics for McCarthy to pass over Wagner for a man in the wake of House Republican losses in 2018.

“To have gone through last cycle and have gone from 23 to 13 women in the House, and to have the opportunity to put someone like Ann Wagner in that job, with her credentials, to me, is a huge missed opportunity,” Walsh said.

There are 35 Democratic women freshmen in the House, but only one on the Republican side. Democrats gained 25 women in the 2018 midterm elections, while Republicans lost 10.

The problem isn’t just at the ballot box. Fewer GOP women are running than Democratic women.

In 2018, 356 women Democrats filed paperwork to run for Congress, compared to 120 Republican women.

“The Republican party does not embrace identity politics, so there is a belief on the Republican side that we just want the best candidate, it doesn’t matter if we elect more women, More people of color,” Walsh said. “There’s a belief that you don’t have to be part of that group to represent that group. So there’ s no substantive reason to go out and recruit from that group … Whereas for Democrats, that representation matters.”

Wagner does believe representation matters.

“Congress needs to be more reflective of who we are as a country,” she said. “Our Republican Party must be more reflective of who we are, the place that women and minorities hold.”

She also believes that policy matters. Republicans need to do a better job of making the case to suburban voters, independents, women and minorities that the party is conscious of their needs and is crafting policies to help them in concrete ways.

To that end, Wagner revived the defunct Suburban Caucus and recruited about 35 Republican members to help write and pass legislation aimed at empowering families in suburban communities.

One proposal Wagner is working on would increase the amount families could put in dependent care flexible savings accounts for the first time since 1986.

“When was the last time your child care cost you $5,000? Right. It’s like they give you nothing,” Wagner said. “I’ve got dependent care FSA (plan) that lifts that to $8,000 for child one and $16,000 for child two.”

Families also would be able to use the money to care for a dependent adult. “My husband and I had to take care of adult parents for a couple of years. It can be used for that also not just for your children,” Wagner said.

Another bill would establish a national paid parental leave program. The New Parents Act would allow workers paid time off to care for a newborn baby or newly adopted child by drawing from Social Security.

Critics say the bill amounts to a benefit cut and a retirement delay for working people who need Social Security the most.

Wagner said she has worked with the Social Security Administration to make certain the New Parents Act does not harm the Social Security Trust Fund.

“The bill would allow parents to draw from their own benefits that they themselves have paid into, and it is completely optional,” she said.

“We want to empower parents to make choices about their own benefits and paychecks that are most effective for their families, without imposing another expensive tax burden on families who are already trying to make ends meet.”

Wagner is a “pitbull” in her advocacy for fellow Republican women, as well as for policies she believes in, said Elise Stefanik, a GOP congresswoman from New York. “She understands that our policies and how we communicate them are directly related to how we win voters, and particularly women voters.”

Together Stefanik, Wagner and Susan Brooks, the head of NRCC recruiting for 2020, have enlisted about 140 women of different ethnicities who want to run as Republicans.

“A lot of them are suburban women, moms and professionals that are very interested,” Wagner said. “A lot of them were almost too politely waiting in the wings not to take on an incumbent Republican man, but now that there’s a Democratic woman there, they’re raring to go. And they’re qualified. I’m very impressed.”

Wagner says some of the men in her party get why it’s important to have women like herself in party leadership.

Some do not.

“That’s life right?” she said. “But generally speaking the ones that matter and are effective get it. And I’ve never felt held back or discouraged. Sometimes sadly I can say – I ran for state party chairman at the time the only woman to ever run, I had three kids, three little kids and it was some of the women in the party that told me I didn’t have any business running to chair a party. Not men. So you know, you can’t get bogged down with that. You keep your head down, you work hard, you get results.”

Whether Wagner’s crusade to save the suburbs for the GOP will succeed -- and where her own career is headed is not clear. Last election cycle, her fundraising chops and experience in party leadership made her an early frontrunner to win the Republican nomination to challenge McCaskill. But in July 2017 she withdrew her name and ran instead to keep her House seat.

Her surprise announcement came after former Missouri Sen. Jack Danforth led a public effort to recruit Hawley, then 37, Missouri’s newly elected attorney general.

Also involved in the effort to recruit Hawley were Steven Law, a former chief of staff for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, former ambassador Sam Fox, former GOP Sen. Kit Bond and Missouri senior Sen. Roy Blunt.

It is not lost on Wagner that the people urging Hawley to run were men.

“Yeah, well, you know sometimes you scratch your head, but at the end of the day, if I want to do something I do it,” she said.

The men’s preference for Hawley did not affect her decision to skip the Senate race, which she said was driven primarily by a loyalty to her district, and a determination to keep it out of Democratic hands.

Still, she has not forgotten it.

“There’s a lot of factors and family factors that go into this stuff,” Wagner said. “But you know, yeah, you always kind of wonder, don’t ya? Shake your head? … I do too, I do too.”

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