Abortion rights or the economy? Wagner-Gunby race may answer what voters care about more
It was just two years ago that Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District was in prime focus among both of the state’s political parties, bringing in national attention and millions of dollars' worth of advertising to an area that consists of St. Louis’ suburbs.
Things have changed quite a bit since. The Missouri legislature redrew the 2nd District to include heavily GOP areas like Warren and Franklin counties. Congresswoman Ann Wagner believes voters in the district that also includes portions of St. Louis and St. Charles counties will respond to her message opposing President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“I’m running for reelection to be that conservative voice in Congress that will work for you and your families and fight for our Midwestern values that are being dramatically threatened by this administration,” Wagner said.
Despite running in a more difficult district for Democrats, state Rep. Trish Gunby contends she has a path to turn the 2nd District blue.
She’s pointing to a campaign that’s included town hall meetings and months of person-to-person contact. And Gunby is hoping to build enough goodwill in historically GOP areas to flip a district without the national support that other Democrats who challenged Wagner received in the past.
“What we're hearing from voters is they're excited,” Gunby said during an interview at her campaign office. “And she has done none of the groundwork that we've done.”
Economy or abortion rights
Gunby believes that voters in the 2nd District will punish Republicans like Wagner because of the fall of Roe v. Wade. Because of the Supreme Court decision, most abortions in the state are banned except for medical emergencies. Gunby said the law is too vague and creates indecision when women are going through severe complications during pregnancies.
“If people think that is good health care here in Missouri, they’re wrong. And we’re going to lose population,” Gunby said. “We’re going to lose young people. It’s detrimental to the state.”
Wagner points to polling showing inflation and energy prices are the most pressing issues for voters.
“While abortion is certainly an issue that is of concern to some that will be voting in the 2nd District, it is not top of mind,” said Wagner, who is opposed to abortion rights with the exceptions of rape, incest and the life of the mother.
Wagner also said that 2nd District voters are energized against elements of Biden’s agenda.
“Elections have consequences,” she said. “And they've seen those consequences, and they want change.”
A decade-plus in the House
Wagner has been a major figure in Missouri Republican politics for several decades.
Before running for Congress, she served as chairwoman of the state party and was involved in state legislative redistricting committees. She also served as ambassador to Luxembourg during President George W. Bush’s administration.
After first being elected to the 2nd District in 2012, Wagner faced two challenging elections — against Cort VanOstran in 2018 and Jill Schupp in 2020. National Democrats targeted the 2nd District in 2020, hoping that a backlash against then-President Donald Trump would lift Schupp to victory. Even though Biden almost won the 2nd District, Wagner prevailed by roughly 6 percentage points.
While Wagner was one of numerous Republicans who were mulling whether to run for the nomination to succeed Sen. Roy Blunt, she ultimately decided to run for reelection.
“I belong in the House,” Wagner said. “It's where the work gets done. It's where the heavy lifting happens.”
During an appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, Wagner emphasized her opposition to a number of Biden’s initiatives such as the American Rescue Plan, the federal infrastructure bill and Inflation Reduction Act. She also declined to vote with 14 of her House colleagues on a bipartisan gun control bill.
“I don't think we need more gun laws,” said Wagner after noting she supported standalone bills around mental health and school safety. “I want to be clear, I'm a big supporter of the Second Amendment. I think we have to enforce the laws that are on the books, prosecute those criminals, and strengthen law enforcement’s hands.”
Wagner has broken with her party on other matters. She was the only GOP member of Missouri’s House delegation to sustain Biden’s victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania. In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio on Jan. 6, she was critical of Trump for his role in the insurrection. She also voted for legislation that would codify same-sex marriage into federal law.
If she wins reelection and Republicans retake the House, Wagner expects to make an impact on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“It’s exciting. I think we’re going to have opportunities to not only put forward our vision for America — and our vision for a better America,” Wagner said. “I think we’re going to rein in through oversight some of the over-regulatory reach of this federal government.”
‘More tires, more tennis shoes’
When Gunby entered the race to take on Wagner last year, the 2nd District had one of the closest presidential results in the entire country. According to a Daily Kos analysis, Trump edged Biden by 115 votes when the district included St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties.
But today Gunby and Wagner are running in a district that is much more Republican thanks to the addition of Franklin and Warren counties. And neither national party is pouring much money or organizational strength into the contest.
Gunby is undaunted.
“We jokingly say, more tires, more tennis shoes,” Gunby said. “The footprint got larger. Many of the concerns are still the same. Voters just want to be heard and talked to.”
Gunby broke into the Missouri political scene in 2019 when she captured a state representative seat in western St. Louis County. That district was previously held by Republicans, and the victory was a sign that part of the county was more predisposed to vote for Democratic candidates.
As a member of the Missouri House, Gunby was critical of many aspects of the GOP supermajority’s agenda. That included her backing of expanding Medicaid and making it easier for Missourians to vote.
But Gunby says a key issue of her congressional campaign has been her support of abortion rights. Right after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Gunby said her campaign made the issue a conversation starter while going door-to-door throughout the district.
“I do not believe politicians should be involved in health care. I think that's between a patient and a provider,” Gunby said. “We shouldn't be in your bedroom, we shouldn't be in your examining room. And that's what I stand by. I think they're going down the wrong path.”
Gunby has sought to showcase her contrasts with Wagner on more than just abortion rights. She said she would have voted for the American Rescue Plan and is in favor of restrictions on guns.
“I support the Second Amendment. I believe in common sense gun legislation,” Gunby said. “I do not believe we need assault weapons out in society. In the military, those weapons are locked away and are only utilized when people train or when we go to war. And the fact that somebody can walk in and buy an assault weapon makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Future of the district
Some Missouri Republicans believe that the 2nd Congressional District will be perennially competitive throughout the decade — especially if historically Republican parts of St. Louis County trend more Democratic. But Democrats like John Kiehne said his party needs to build bridges in places like Franklin County in order for the 2nd District to be continually in play.
“We have to invest time, energy, money, year after year, cycle after cycle,” Kiehne said. “There is no off day. There’s no Sunday. There’s no Friday night for what the Democratic Party needs to do in Franklin County.”
Kiehne is running in the 26th Senate District, which includes Franklin County. And his GOP opponent, Ben Brown, doesn’t disagree that the key to making the 2nd District perennially competitive is making inroads in historically GOP areas.
“They have to have people who are engaged,” Brown said. “That’s huge for both parties in different areas. Same for the St. Louis area with the Republicans.”
Jones challenges Bush in 1st District
Next door to the 2nd District, Congresswoman Cori Bush is facing a challenge from Republican Andrew Jones to represent Missouri’s 1st District. That takes in all of St. Louis and a part of St. Louis County.
The district is heavily Democratic, making Bush the overwhelming favorite.
She was highly critical of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and has made passing a federal law guaranteeing abortion rights for everyone a major priority.
“Democrats need to send a direct message to people in every corner of the country that we are the pro-human rights, pro-bodily autonomy, pro-reproductive freedom party fighting to protect and expand fundamental rights for all,” Bush said.
Jones said he supported the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, noting that it gave states the right to decide how to restrict abortion. He agrees with Wagner that economic concerns like inflation and high gas prices are more of a concern to voters.
And while he acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle, Jones is hoping to provide a voice for Republicans in the 1st District who may hold views that are different from Bush's.
“I'm a strategic thinker,” said Jones, who ran for St. Louis mayor in 2017 and 2021. “I understand tactics that are necessary to make an impact.”
Meanwhile, three other incumbents who represent portions of the St. Louis area are also facing challenges:
- Blaine Luetkemeyer is squaring off against Democrat Bethany Mann in the heavily Republican 3rd District, which includes parts of Jefferson and St. Charles counties.
- Jason Smith is running against Democrat Randi McCallian in the southeast Missouri-based 8th Congressional District. Smith’s district includes parts of Jefferson County.
- Sam Graves is running against Democrat Henry Martin in the vast 6th Congressional District, which includes most of northeast Missouri and Lincoln County.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum