Before Ann Wagner even won her seat in the House, the Missouri Republican already had reached out to introduce herself to the other 34 members of the incoming GOP class. She had contributed money to some, campaigned for others, and chatted amiably with still more.
When all the newly elected Republicans assembled for the first time earlier this month at the Capitol Hill Hotel for orientation, the incoming freshmen were greeted by packets about Wagner and her bid to represent them at the House Republican leadership table.
“Like anything, you’ve got to ask for it, you’ve got to campaign for it, you’ve got to work for it,” she said. Her blitz of e-mails, texts, and phone calls to new colleagues had begun less than 48 hours after the polls closed. By the end of her first full week in Washington as representative-elect, Wagner had won election to the leadership post by acclamation.
The early episode hints at why just about any conversation with top House Republicans about the rising stars of the freshman class invariably turns to Wagner.
“She just has so much potential and skill sets,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told National Journal Daily. “I expect big things from Ann all around.”
The 50-year-old mother of three had never run for office before this year, but she already boasts a political résumé longer than many of her more veteran colleagues. She led the Missouri Republican Party for six years, served as cochair of the Republican National Committee from 2001 to 2005, and was a top fundraiser for President George W. Bush, who later appointed her U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. In 2010, she chaired Sen. Roy Blunt’s campaign in Missouri and then ran to head the Republican National Committee after the election, lasting through six rounds of secret balloting before withdrawing and clearing the way for Reince Priebus’s victory.
“Yes, I know my way around this town,” Wagner said in a recent interview, as she peered around the second-floor dining room of the Capitol Hill Club, the Republican haunt a stone’s throw from the Capitol.
Fed up by the exploding debt she fears her kids will inherit, Wagner said she arrives in Congress to represent a nation of “budget moms” and to give voice to “suburban women, just like me.”
“We’re putting the gas in the minivan,” she said. “I know what the poor energy policy does to the price at the pump.”
Wagner, who is filling the seat of Rep. Todd Akin, has been groomed for a more prominent place than the rank and file. She was one of only three House GOP candidates whom Speaker John Boehner tapped this year to deliver the party’s weekly radio address. And when Akin’s Senate campaign imploded after his remarks about “legitimate rape,” some influential Republicans saw Wagner as a lifeline and urged her to somehow swap races with him and run for Senate.
“We’re going to win Missouri. Ann Wagner is going to end up being our candidate. The party is going to get Ann Wagner in,” GOP strategist Mary Matalin declared on ABC’s This Week in late August.
It didn’t happen. (Wagner said she never seriously contemplated switching races or speaking with Akin about it.) Instead, Wagner coasted into Congress to represent the suburbs of St. Louis, safe Republican territory that she carried by a 23-percentage-point margin.
In many ways, Wagner is following the same path that McCarthy took to prominence six years earlier: She secured her seat in the primary and then used her fundraising muscle (she and her husband, Ray Wagner, an Enterprise Rent-A-Car executive and former federal lobbyist, were Bush fundraising “rangers” eight years ago) to assist other needy Republicans and build alliances. She raised more than $2.5 million in her inaugural House bid and, along the way, campaigned for or contributed to 22 House Republican candidates and incumbents this year, she said.
“She’s much better than I ever was,” McCarthy said. “She didn’t just write checks; she traveled to their districts as well.”
Wagner also arrives on Capitol Hill at a moment of introspection for Republicans about the role of women in the party. Top Republicans are desperate for more gender diversity in the leadership ranks inside and outside of Congress—it was the subtext of the successful bid by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., for conference chair—especially after President Obama won reelection on the strength of an 11-point gender gap over Mitt Romney.
“We’ve got to do a better job reaching out to women,” Wagner said.
Liz Mair, a GOP strategist who met her during Wagner’s bid to chair the RNC, said her experience representing the country abroad makes her a perfect politician to improve GOP outreach to women and others here at home. “If you’re a good ambassador for your country, you’re hopefully a good ambassador for your party, too,” Mair said.
Wagner describes herself as a “very strong ... fiscal and social conservative,” but she doesn’t come across as a fire-breathing partisan. She opposes gay marriage, does not support abortion rights—including in cases of rape or incest—and signed a no-tax pledge. She owns a gun safe that holds more than 16 firearms. And after her four-year stint in Luxembourg, Wagner said she returned to Missouri and observed that it was “a little like socialism followed me home” under President Obama.
Her talent as a diplomat is that she “represents actual conservative viewpoints well and does it in a way that’s not offensive to people,” Mair said.
Wagner delivers conservative talking points with the same folksy twang and toothy smile she uses to reminisce about her “granddaddy” and middle-class upbringing. She made her way through college on a vocal scholarship, taking starring roles in musicals, from Oklahoma! to Bye Bye Birdie. The theatrical training, she said, taught her how to “stand up and communicate.” It’s clear she also mastered how to deliver prepared lines with a certain genuineness. It’s a useful skill as she prepares to take her place on the national stage.
This article appears in the November 27, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.