A Surprising Announcement

By Jim Ellis

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-St. Louis County)

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-St. Louis County)

July 6, 2017 — A July announcement regarding the coming Missouri US Senate race had been expected for weeks, but the actual content featured a much different declaration than anticipated.

Just before the July 4th holiday, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-St. Louis County), who was thought to be announcing a campaign for the Senate, instead made public her decision not to challenge Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. Rep. Wagner will seek a fourth term in the House, however. The congresswoman cited her desire to continue fully representing her home area as the driving force behind her ultimate political decision. In her statement, Wagner said that the 2nd District “ … is my home. It’s where I grew up, went to school, have worked and volunteered, raised my kids, and attend church every week—there is no greater honor than representing a place and people that I love.”

The Wagner turnabout was particularly surprising in that she had been raising money at a very strong clip, more than $800,000 in the first quarter with a projected similar amount for the quarter just ended but not yet publicly reported.

Democrats, of course, are saying that Wagner decided not to run statewide because she and another Republicans fear a bad political year. The Dems uniformly cite President Trump’s low approval ratings and what many perceive as a politically negative healthcare issue, things they believe will cause major electoral problems for GOP candidates.

In the Missouri context, however, such an argument does not likely hold water in dissecting the reasons behind Wagner’s decision. Missouri is a state that has moved decidedly to the right during this century, Sen. McCaskill’s victories, notwithstanding. The Show Me State voting pattern is now reliably conservative, and no longer the classic political bellwether as was the case in years past.

Additionally, Democratic candidates, strategists, and spokespeople made these same arguments in the various 2017 special congressional elections, all in similarly reliable Republican domains where Democrats were optimistic about scoring an upset – and, particularly so in the famous Georgia election – yet all continued to perform for Republicans even with record turnouts in two of the campaigns. Therefore, the dynamics that Democrats predicted would cut for them in the specials didn’t, and Missouri sets up in similar fashion.

This is not to say that defeating a multi-term incumbent is ever an easy task, nor should such a challenger race be directly compared to the open special congressional elections conducted during these past recent months.

The Wagner decision could prove to be a prelude for another Republican entering the race: Attorney General Josh Hawley. Certain key party former elected officials and dignitaries, such as former US Sen. John Danforth, ex-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, and major donor and ex-Ambassador Sam Fox, have publicly urged Hawley to run for the Senate. For his part, the attorney general, just elected for the first time in November, hasn’t ruled out a Senate bid but also says his first priority is to execute the duties of the position to which the people just elected him.

Considering what could now become a Senate nomination contest where he would only face minimal opposition, it may be difficult for Hawley to bypass forming a campaign committee. While the Wagner decision is indeed stunning when considering the preparatory work she had already completed, the tangential result could lead to a GOP consensus coalescing around Attorney General Hawley, which means Sen. McCaskill would still face a daunting 2018 re-election campaign.

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