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Wagner won't challenge McCaskill for Senate in 2018, instead will seek re-election to House

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin, has upended Missouri’s 2018 expected contest for the U.S. Senate by announcing Monday that she won’t challenge Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill.

Wagner instead plans to seek re-election for the House seat she has held since 2013.

She had been expected to announce her Senate candidacy in the next few weeks.  A number of Republicans and Democrats already had been privately maneuvering to run for her 2nd District seat, once she declared her Senate bid.

Wagner gave no reasons for her change of heart in a statement issued Monday:

“Those who know me well know I put my family and my community first,” she wrote. “While I am grateful for the incredible support and encouragement I have received from across Missouri to run for United States Senate, I am announcing today my intention to run for re-election to the United States House of Representatives in 2018.

“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.”

Wagner’s decision to stay put in the House likely will put more pressure on state Attorney General Josh Hawley, who has been publicly encouraged to run for Senate by leading GOP figures in the Missouri. Among those pressing him to challenge McCaskill are donor Sam Fox and former U.S. Sen. John Danforth.

Hawley has repeatedly demurred, most recently in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio a few weeks ago. He has said he is focusing on his current post.

Josh Hawley
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley

A former law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has never before held elective office, Hawley took office in January. But he has attracted a lot of party support because he was the state’s top vote-getter in November, attracting even more than then-Republican presidential nominee — and now president — Donald Trump, who carried the state by 18 percentage points.

Hawley is a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and is close to the GOP’s religious-conservative wing.

Should he decide to run, Hawley could face a financial challenge. None of his current campaign money could be used for a Senate bid because federal campaign-finance laws are stricter than Missouri's. He would need to set up a new federal committee.

McCaskill last reported having $3.05 million in campaign funds. Among her potential GOP challengers, Wagner had by far amassed the largest campaign account, with $2.77 million in the bank as of her last report, money which she could have used for a Senate bid. The next campaign-finance reports will be filed July 15.

Wagner made news in October, just weeks before the election, when she disavowed Trump’s disparaging comments about women in an old Access Hollywood video.

But since Trump’s inauguration, Wagner has sided with the president on most major issues — including his quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the health insurance package put in place by then-President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats in 2010.

Her decision to stay out of the Senate contest drew only a mild reaction from McCaskill's camp.

"One politician has taken a pass," McCaskill spokesman John LaBombard said. "We're sure another politician will take her place."

But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did not pass on an opportunity to take a partisan shot. Wagner is another example of  “Republican Senate candidates [who] are refusing to run under their party’s toxic health care plan that spikes costs and strips coverage for hardworking families in order to give big insurance companies another tax break," it said in a statement. "The GOP brand is in tatters and their candidates have nothing to run on except a string of broken promises."

The DSCC then went on to praise McCaskill. "No one else would be a more effective champion for the state’s working families," the statement said.

Before running for the House seat in 2012, Wagner primarily had been a player in national and state Republican politics. She was Missouri GOP chairman in the late 1990s, and then became co-chair of the Republican National Committee shortly after George W. Bush took office in 2001. Bush later named Wagner as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, a post she held for about three years. Wagner’s husband, Ray Wagner, is an executive with Enterprise Holdings Inc.

Follow Jo on Twitter:  @jmannies

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Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
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