Ann Wagner is working quickly to make a mark in Congress
Ann Wagner is working quickly to make a mark in Congress
WASHINGTON • Ann Wagner often slips out the back door of her congressional office building and crosses the street to her unpaid job — recruiting GOP candidates across the country to run for the U.S. House in 2014.
Her pitch at the other building, where the National Republican Congressional Committee has its offices?
“Let us help you consider this. Here’s what I can do for you; here’s what the NRCC can do for you. We’d like your decision by summer,” she said, recalling conversations with potential GOP candidates from around the country.
Wagner, a Ballwin resident who won election in November to Missouri’s newly configured 2nd District House seat, is moving more quickly than ever these days.
Soon after her election, Wagner was chosen leader of the 35-member GOP freshman class. She has brought energy to the job, working to re-calibrate a GOP message that, polls suggest, voters are finding stale.
Wagner, 50, decided to campaign for her leadership post at 3:30 a.m. the day after winning her congressional seat by 23 percentage points.
“A lonely victory,” she called it, referring to her party’s dismal showings in the 2012 Senate contests and the presidential race.
While others candidates decompressed, Wagner embarked on another campaign. She landed at the leadership table with Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and others in the House GOP brain trust, the center for opposition to the White House and Democratic-run Senate.
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, whose own newly drawn district takes in a swath of Metro East, believes Wagner is helping freshman Republicans in their quest to push leadership toward more bipartisan dealings. The new class is grateful to her, he said, for getting it audiences with Boehner and other leaders.
“Ann’s biggest strength is her energy,” Davis said. “She doesn’t let up, and she has the tenacity to move forward the principles that we stand for, that she stands for.”
Wagner’s experience and savvy also won her a coveted seat on the House Financial Services Committee, the venue for Republican efforts to dismantle the Democratic-enginered Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
Recently, she grilled Security and Exchange Commission officials on why they seemingly have dallied in implementing legislation designed to help new companies raise capital.
“The mood among entrepreneurs and investors in the St. Louis region has gone from excitement and anticipation to frustration and bewilderment,” she told them.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Tex., chairman of the committee, referred to the exchange in assessing Wagner’s impact.
“She hit the ground running,” he said, “and in a short amount of time, she has become a leader on this issue.”
HONING THE MESSAGE
Wagner already has her name on more than 30 pieces of legislation. She’s a main sponsor of a key GOP initiative that would strip money from the Affordable Care Act and shift it to an underfunded government program helping people with pre-existing conditions.
Her bill, called the Helping Sick Americans Now Act, suggests a more moderate approach than contained in other GOP efforts to do away with “Obamacare.”
Softening the GOP message is one of her main goals, Wagner says. She took office at a time when Republicans were being accused of being insensitive to women, and as the Tea Party movement continues to cause waves in the GOP.
But Wagner’s focus isn’t on moving away from core Republican initiatives, such as reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy or opposing abortion. Instead, Wagner said, she believes the party needs to emphasize parts of its message that resonate with working-class voters.
“We need to be the party of the hard-working middle class. I don’t know how we lost that, but that’s who I am — the daughter and granddaughter of small business owners,” she said.
Yet some of Wagner’s views mirror a seeming unwillingness in her party to reach out to voters who have been abandoning the GOP. She was among 138 House Republicans who voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women’s Act before it was signed into law. She questioned its constitutionality and said she worried it could lead to more abortions.
At a time when an increasing number of Americans worry about climate change, Wagner signed on as co-sponsor of legislation that would forbid sending money to the United Nations and a related scientific body to study issues surrounding global warning.
Even so, she asserts: “We don’t want to be this party of no, no, no — cut, cut, cut. We want to be a party that’s finding solutions for the American people and moving the ball forward.”
GOP ‘NOT DEAD’
In her first months in office, Wagner is continuing the prolific fundraising that enabled her to accumulate an eye-popping $2.7 million for her race for Congress, a contest in which she had no significant opposition.
Her most recent quarterly report to the Federal Election Commission reflected $288,000 in receipts, 60 percent of it from political action committees — many of which have a keen interest in the Financial Services Committee.
Moving swiftly to build a power base, she donated some of those recent proceeds to GOP candidates in seven states, the report shows.
Wagner’s political activities appear relentless. Besides recruiting candidates — aiming heavily at women, she says — she’s working with the House GOP campaign arm on voter programs and, as she put it, “the right way to communicate our message.”
Rather than speaking in abstract terms such as “job creators” — a favored refrain in recent GOP campaigns — Wagner advises bringing Republican policies home to voters.
“Often times, we’re a party that talks in charts and graphs and statistics,” she said. “Instead, I say ‘Close your eyes and pretend you’re speaking to a single mother of two who’s trying to make it to the 15th and the 30th of the month. Speak to the mom who’s trying to make the kids’ tennis shoes last for another six months. How does our policy help her?’ ”
Wagner even found time earlier this month to write a guest newspaper column in which she asserted: “The Republican Party is not dead.”
“Elections defeat candidates, they don’t defeat principles and ideals,” she said, explaining what she meant in the article. “I still believe we’ve got sound principles and ideals as a party in terms of giving people hope and opportunity and getting government out of the way.”
In coming weeks, the GOP-run House will be turning to energy and more jobs-related proposals, initiatives that Wagner believes can draw Democratic backing.
Chances are, despite all her other pursuits, Wagner will be involved in the maneuvering.
As she put it: “I feel like I’m juggling an egg, a bowling ball and a chainsaw, and the cellphone rings.”