Ann Wagner will be sworn in next month to her first elected office. But the congresswoman-elect from Missouri, who won Todd Akin’s suburban St. Louis district in November, is hardly a newcomer to national politics. “I’m pretty reflective of the district,” she demurs. “It’s a lot of suburban women and families.”
But Wagner, 50, is not your average soccer mom. She’s also unlike the dozens of House Republicans elected in 2010 with little political experience. This freshman comes to Washington with an impressive record in both state and national politics.
Wagner chaired the Republican party in Missouri from 1999 to 2005, while also serving as co-chair of the Republican National Committee during George W. Bush’s first term. After gaining “ranger” status for raising $200,000 for President Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, she became American ambassador to Luxembourg.
House GOP leaders have singled her out as a key member of the class of 2012. Before she was even elected, Wagner was tapped to give the Republican response to one of President Obama’s weekly addresses. In that October address, she recalled growing up in Manchester, Missouri, working her way up at her parents’ carpet store, watching her father battle bureaucratic red tape: “He knew he could do better if government would just get out of the way and stay out of the way.”
One of three women in the GOP’s 2012 class, she was appointed to the Elected Leadership Committee, making her the liaison between freshmen and the House Republican leadership. She also got a seat on the Financial Services Committee, an “A” committee. House majority leader Eric Cantor says, “Ann Wagner is smart, savvy, independent-minded,” and “a proven leader.”
Wagner won her House race with advantages normally seen in a popular incumbent. She raised nearly 40 times more cash than her Democratic opponent, Glenn Koenen. This allowed her to start Ann PAC, a political action committee that helped other Republican House candidates during the race.
Early in her campaign, Wagner clashed with Tea Party activists backing a primary opponent, Ed Martin, who ultimately decided not to run against her. The activists complained that Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where Wagner’s husband is an executive, was bankrolling her campaign.
“We have a going on two-decades relationship with Enterprise,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her husband joined Enterprise in 1995 and now is vice president of government and public affairs for its holding company, the Crawford Group. Since the election, he has deregistered as a federal lobbyist. Only 7.7 percent of her campaign contributions came from Crawford Group employees.
Wagner eventually won over Tea Partiers, despite her establishment status. “She has always been the kind of person who can bring all the elements together,” says John Hancock, former executive director of the Missouri GOP.
Wagner wouldn’t have run for Congress if she had succeeded in her bid to head the RNC. She lost to Reince Priebus in January 2011 after running an aggressive campaign. In an RNC candidate debate, she emphasized her pro-gun credentials, noting that she owns 16 guns, including pistols, shotguns, and rifles.
While seeking Todd Akin’s House seat this fall, Wagner was sharply critical of the “legitimate rape” remark he made as a Senate candidate, calling it “wrong and indefensible.” At one point, there was talk of switching places with Akin and running for the Senate, but nothing came of it.
But Wagner didn’t run as a women’s candidate—quite the opposite. “I have never been a believer that there are women’s issues or men’s issues,” she says. “I think there are just issues that women care deeply about, and perhaps we need to message them a little bit differently.”
She refers to a special group of female voters as “budget moms.” They make household spending decisions and balance the family budget, cutting back during tough times. Wagner says her own children inspired her to seek elected office and confront “a government that’s mortgaging their future and saddling them with debt and out-of-control spending and a jobs climate that is absolutely dismal.” The University of Missouri business graduate held management positions at Hallmark Cards and Ralston Purina before entering the arena.
“We all want to affect public policy somehow, but you don’t do that if you’re not in power, and you’re not in power unless you win elections,” she says. As a party leader—including her work as chair of Senator Roy Blunt’s successful 2010 campaign—“I went about the business of winning elections.” Now she’s finally won an election of her own.
Kyle Huwa is an intern at The Weekly Standard.