| March 15, 2019 12:05 AM
Rep. Ann Wagner is moving to halt the Republican Party’s precipitous slide in America’s suburbs, launching a coalition of concerned GOP lawmakers in a bid to claw back from Democrats voters critical to their 2020 prospects.
The Missouri Republican is reconstituting the suburban caucus in the House of Representatives, a policy group that has lain dormant for a decade. Wagner, 56, plans to use the caucus oif about 20 Republicans to develop legislation directed at voters in the suburbs.
“We’ve got challenges and a problem. There’s something missing,” Wagner told the Washington Examiner on Thursday in an interview. “We lost ground. It wasn’t just with suburban women, it was with independents and men, also.”
Wagner is among the few Republicans left in the House who represent purely suburban districts after a midterm election thrashing by Democrats in what amounted to a rebuke of President Trump. Democrats captured suburban seats from coast to coast that had been held by Republicans for decades. Wagner, from suburban St. Louis, survived by the closest margin of any of her campaigns.
Understanding that she would have an even bigger target on her back this cycle and that her party’s revival in the presidential race depends on a suburban resurgence, Wagner went to work immediately after the 2018 election to figure out what could be done. Married, college-educated voters in middle-class and upscale suburbs are a crucial component of the Republican coalition when the party prevails in national elections.
After consulting with pollsters, strategists, and think tanks, Wagner decided to reboot the suburban caucus. Proposals to address quality of life issues that suburban voters care about, such as paid family leave, traffic relief, and healthcare access and affordability, are what have been missing from the GOP agenda, Wagner believes.
“I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to meet [suburban voters’] needs and earn their support — before they stray too far,” Wagner said. “We have to be more proactive.”
As with many of her colleagues, she downplays Trump as a factor in the party’s woes.
Wagner, a fourth-term congresswoman, is one of 13 Republican women still standing in the House. She has deep experience in politics, extending back to 1992, when she played a prominent role in Missouri for the re-election campaign of President George H.W. Bush. Wagner would later serve as chairwoman of the Missouri GOP and co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
Wagner talks regularly with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who is focused on electing more Republican women to Congress through a new political action committee. The two see their efforts as working in tandem — Stefanik on a major political aspect of the Republican Party’s problem, Wagner on the policy challenges.
Despite recent setbacks, Republicans are optimistic about a suburban recovery. The Democrats, they argue, are drifting too far to the Left, particularly on healthcare and abortion. Many Democrats in the House and some running for president have proposed putting all healthcare under the control of the federal government. Others are attempting to ease restrictions on late-term abortion.
But to capitalize, Republicans have to communicate what they are for. Criticizing Democrats for being too progressive is not enough, said Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist, explaining why Wagner’s decision to resuscitate the suburban caucus is important. Hickey advises Republicans running in suburban districts and was chief of staff to then-Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois when he launched the first House suburban caucus.
“The suburbs are up for grabs,” Hickey said. “I think Republicans, when you look at the Democrats’ far-left congressional agenda, have a great opportunity.”