Rep. Wagner seeks to strengthen female voice in Republican Party

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) may no longer be a diplomat, but she’s always had a bit of a diplomatic nature. In fact, it’s been her stock-in-trade during her career in politics.

A St. Louis native and logistician by trade — she graduated from University of Missouri with a degree in business administration before working for Hallmark and Ralston Purina — Wagner began her political career when she and her husband, Ray, jumped into Missouri’s decennial redistricting fight in 1990 at the request of then-Gov. John Ashcroft (R). There, Wagner worked for the Missouri Republican Party while her husband served in the Ashcroft administration. 

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Her first real diplomatic test came when she ran for the chairmanship of the Missouri GOP in 1999. She won the job, becoming the first female chair of the state party. In 2002, Wagner’s GOP wrested control of the Missouri state House from Democrats for the first time since 1954. Her tenure also saw Republican Jim Talent win a U.S. Senate seat in a special election over Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan.

Wagner’s efforts set the stage for the Show Me State to go from a shade of purple to a deep, deep red: Republicans currently control both chambers of the Missouri legislature with veto-proof majorities, one U.S. Senate seat and six of the state’s eight U.S. House seats.

Wagner also emerged quickly on the national scene. Two years after winning her state party chairmanship, she became a Republican National Committee co-chairwoman, and held both positions simultaneously. She worked alongside three other RNC co-chairs before 2005, when then-President George W. Bush appointed her U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. She served four years in that post.

“When a governor asks you to come and serve ... or a president, subsequently in my life — you do so,” Wagner told The Hill.

Wagner’s most successful accomplishment during her time as RNC co-chairwoman was the organization’s Winning Women initiative, a program that was designed to sell the Republican Party’s policies to women in the wake of President George W. Bush’s underwhelming showing among them in the 2000 presidential election. 

“[The initiative] was fantastic,” Wagner said. The program also promoted women candidates and their involvement in politics across the nation.

“We started those chapters up in a number of the states. But it’s a passion of mine, and near and dear to my heart. I love working with the women in our conference, great [and] strong leaders. We’re 19 strong. I wish we were more, and I’m working on that, too.” 

Indeed, Wagner is not finished promoting conservative ideals among women, a group that Republicans performed poorly with once again in 2012. At the presidential level, President Obama claimed the support of 55 percent of female voters while only 44 percent backed GOP nominee Mitt Romney, according to exit polls.

The poor showing among female voters was widely perceived to be related to a number of controversies, the most infamous of which centered upon Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) remarks regarding rape. During a TV interview, Akin suggested that there was a difference between “legitimate rape” and other kinds. He added that, in the case of the former, pregnancy was unlikely to result because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Democrats seized on such comments to suggest that the GOP was engaged in a “war on women.”   

Wagner now holds Akin’s old seat. The freshman representative says she has been actively recruiting female candidates in about 20 House districts that the GOP hopes to pick up to expand its majority.

Nevertheless, the GOP does have a messaging problem, a tendency to “be a little stale or talking in charts and graphs and statistics and things,” as Wagner put it. She believes the GOP needs a different approach. 

“I always say, close your eyes and let’s say it again. But you’re speaking to a 37-year-old single mother of two who’s trying to make it to the 15th and the 30th of the month,” Wagner said. “How do we communicate our policies and ideals and hopes for the future [in a way] that gives her hope and tells her, you know, we’re going to make your life a little easier. And help your children have a shot at the American dream like I had.”

In that sense, Wagner says she has taken the approach that there are no “women’s issues” per se, but there are issues that women deeply care about. 

“[Women] like to be asked sometimes,” Wagner said, “and I want to have an inviting presence for them, which is what the Winning Women program was about.”

In recent years, Wagner has also chaired Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) successful 2010 campaign to succeed Sen. Kit Bond (R), and made an unsuccessful bid to become RNC chairwoman in 2011. A year later, she won her own seat by more than 20 percentage points in what is universally considered a disappointing year for GOP turnout. Still, the election was no cakewalk; Wagner had to beat back a primary challenger despite her status as an “establishment Republican,” a label that can draw fierce intraparty opposition. 

She is now the GOP freshman representative on the Republican Elected Leadership Committee, which makes many decisions affecting the House Republican Conference.