In the 2nd District, Wagner highlights a long resume, as newcomer VanOstran says it's time for a change
ST. LOUIS • A Missouri congressional district that’s long been solidly Republican has nonetheless drawn national attention heading into this Tuesday’s election, as political newcomer Cort VanOstran will attempt to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner in her bid for a fourth term.
But even amid breathless predictions of a “blue wave” of victories for Democrats, it’ll be an uphill battle for VanOstran, a lawyer who has largely centered his campaign on health care. Not only is Wagner a prolific fundraiser with a deep political résumé, but President Donald Trump won the district — which includes suburbs spanning parts of St. Charles, Jefferson and St. Louis counties — by 10 percentage points in 2016.
What has some Democrats hopeful for an upset is the district’s contingent of suburban women, who more than any other national demographic have soured on Trump since he took office two years ago.
Wagner contends most of the voters she’s spoken to — many of them suburban women — feel Republicans and the president have done well to protect economic security, through cuts to taxes and regulations, and national security, by a push to secure borders.
“They feel they’re keeping more of their hard-earned money, they feel their wages have gone up, that they’re saving some now finally for the future,” said Wagner, R-Ballwin. “They’re pleased their son or their daughter has job security and that their neighbor does, too.
“They do feel the president has worked to make a safer world out there for them.”
Still, even as Trump has campaigned in the St. Louis region multiple times this year, Wagner has not had the president in for a campaign rally.
The Trump factor and the uproar over Brett Kavanaugh, his second nomination to the country’s top court, are certainly on voters’ minds, VanOstran said. He argues that while the president ran saying he was in favor of working people, his actions haven’t reflected that.
“I’m somebody who is going to be happy to work with the president when he wants to get things done for people in this district. But I’m also somebody who’s not going to be afraid to stand up to him, to hold him accountable, and to call out embarrassing, errant behavior when I see it,” VanOstran said.
Wagner, 56, brings years of political experience to the table. As a Mizzou graduate with a small-business background, she got her start in politics in the 1990s, when she served as a local committeewoman in Lafayette Township in St. Louis County. She was later the chair of the Missouri Republican Party, the co-chair of the Republican National Committee and the United States ambassador to Luxembourg before winning her House seat.
As achievements, she points to a law she sponsored that criminalizes the online advertising of sex-trafficking victims and her legislative efforts to both protect retirement savings and support military veterans. The latter issue is close to her heart, as her son, Raymond Wagner, is a captain in the Army. She has two other children, Stephen and Mary Ruth, with her husband, Ray.
She also highlights her service on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs committee — specifically, on the Middle East and Asia Pacific subcommittees — and on the Financial Services committee.
Wagner said she believed congressional races were still very much local affairs.
“I think congressional seats are not as subject to waves, if you’re running the right kind of campaign on your record and who you are,” she said.
When people ask about his age, VanOstran, 30, has come to assume they’re really asking if he has enough experience to represent their interests in Congress.
VanOstran, native of Joplin, has never before held political office, but he points to his experience growing up in rural Missouri and helping his mother to raise his young siblings after his father committed suicide.
“I understand how the decisions made in Washington affect real people. I think that is in some ways my most important qualification,” he said.
VanOstran, a Washington University and Harvard grad who practices law with Gray, Ritter and Graham, also teaches at Washington University’s law school. His top priorities if elected include gun reforms such as universal background checks, campaign finance reform and a plan to encourage states such as Missouri to expand Medicaid, he said.
VanOstran has made health care the cornerstone for his campaign because the debate, for him, is a personal one.
He said he was motivated to run for office after his mother died of breast cancer. She had bought health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and he has sharply criticized Wagner for her role in efforts to repeal it, highlighting in particular its popular provision protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
That’s now on the chopping block, as Republican attorneys general throughout the country, including Missouri, are suing to repeal the law in its entirety.
Wagner said, “While I’m certainly sad that we weren’t able to get more done in the Senate in terms of health care, our legislation has always made sure insurance companies cannot rescind coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and cannot exclude benefits based on pre-existing conditions.”
VanOstran alleges that the Republican legislation would allow insurance companies to charge exorbitant amounts for those with pre-existing conditions, defeating its stated purpose. He wants Congress to shore up and expand the health care law, rather than gut its core protections.
“It’s not a perfect bill. It wasn’t a perfect plan. But the ACA has given access to a lot more Americans and a lot more Missourians than had (health care) before,” he said.
Wagner maintains that the current system under Obamacare is unworkable and unaffordable.
“We need things that are patient-centered,” she said, adding that she would support things such as health savings accounts and association health care plans, which allow people to buy coverage pooled through groups such as a local farm bureau or chamber of commerce.
“Those are a really great way to lower premiums and encourage choice,” Wagner said.
The home stretch
Wagner came into the final stretch of the congressional campaign with a sizable cash advantage. She had more than $2 million in her coffers, compared with less than $400,000 for VanOstran, though he outpaced her in summer fundraising.
While she has acknowledged that this election marks a tougher challenge for her than in years past, Wagner and her aides expressed confidence in her victory on Tuesday. Earlier this year, she turned down fundraising help from the National Republican Congressional Committee. She has also opted not to debate her fellow 2nd District candidates.
That has become a key talking point for her opponent, who says Wagner hasn’t spent enough time in her district.
“People in this district are so ready for someone who will show up. That’s what I hear more than anything else,” VanOstran said.
Wagner firmly pushed back on that assertion.
“I’m in the district a lot interacting with my constituents,” Wagner said. “I’ve lived and worked and played in this community my whole life. I respect anyone willing to throw their hat in the arena to run for political office, but my Democratic opponent just moved to St. Louis a couple of years ago … I’ve been here my entire life.”
At a packed town hall in Des Peres last month, VanOstran reminded attendees that he had held six town halls during his campaign, vowing to hold one once a quarter, or four times a year, if elected. He then took a series of unscreened questions on topics ranging from reproductive rights to the federal deficit.
“I think if we want politicians who are truthful, we need politicians who will be accountable,” he said.
Going into the final weekend before the election, Wagner wrapped up a rainy day of campaigning by sitting with volunteers in her Ballwin campaign office, making signs that workers will hand out at the polls on Tuesday. She said her campaign had already reached more than 260,000 voters going into the final days, through knocking on doors, phone banking or sending hand-written postcards.
“I don’t know how many members of Congress knock on doors, but I actually do,” Wagner said. “This to me is a calling, it’s not a job. And I think there’s more work to be done.”