House GOPer eyes McCaskill challenge

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What’s next for Rep. Ann Wagner? Possibly a Senate bid in 2018. 

The Missouri Republican, Bush family loyalist and former top Republican National Committee official, is said to be mulling her next steps even with the 2016 presidential race still underway.

{mosads}And while no final decisions have been made, several Missouri GOP insiders say the most likely possibility is that Wagner runs for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Claire McCaskill. 

Wagner, 53, would be a formidable challenger if she could capture her party’s nomination. The former Missouri GOP chairwoman represents the suburbs just outside St. Louis, so she already has name identification in the Show Me State’s most populous region.

And Wagner can tap into a vast national fundraising network: She was co-chairwoman of the RNC, a fundraising “ranger” for President George W. Bush and now serves as the finance chair of the House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.

She currently has about $2.2 million in cash on hand and won’t need to use much of that this election cycle.

“Ann Wagner will run,” predicted one Missouri GOP operative who knows her well.  

In a brief interview on the steps of the Capitol, the two-term congresswoman said she hasn’t been thinking about a future Senate bid. Instead, she said she’s focused on helping her good friend and mentor, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), win reelection and helping her party take back the governor’s mansion in November.

“She’s immensely beatable,” Wagner said of McCaskill, “but we’re going to take it one election cycle at a time. We’re focused on the ‘16 race.”

Sources close to Wagner said she would be “uniquely positioned” and “well qualified” to run for any number of positions in the future: the Senate, the governor’s office or NRCC chair.

Yet her decision will probably hinge on what happens this November: If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, it could create a better political environment for a Republican to win McCaskill’s Senate seat in a midterm election. Should Donald Trump or Ted Cruz capture the White House, it could make the 2018 midterm tougher for the GOP.

Missouri Republicans say they’re not certain that McCaskill, a fiesty former county prosecutor and state auditor, will even run for reelection. Missouri has been trending redder in recent elections, and the senator recently received treatment for breast cancer. 

But in a brief interview with The Hill, McCaskill said she’s seeking a third Senate term in 2018. 

“I’m running,” McCaskill declared as she headed to a Senate vote. When told Wagner might be looking to unseat her, McCaskill replied enthusiastically: “Bring them on!” 

“When you look at the Missouri delegation, I’m assuming that a number of them will want to take me on,” the senator said. “The more the merrier. I welcome them all.”

Whether McCaskill runs or not, Missouri’s 2018 Senate race is expected to feature a crowded field. Other popular House members, including former Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), a member of the powerful Armed Services Committee, might take a look at the race. And if gubernatorial candidates like Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and Eric Greitens come up short this year, they could quickly pivot to the Senate race. 

A McCaskill-Wagner matchup, however, would be a battle royal, Missouri political observers say. Both lawmakers describe their relationship as “cordial” and “professional.” Wagner reached out to McCaskill earlier this year when the senator was diagnosed with breast cancer. They saw each other on the same Southwest Airlines flight this week from St. Louis to Washington. 

“I see her at airports a lot, and I talk to her lobbyist husband. We’re friends with Ray and Ann,” McCaskill said. “The last time I talked to Ray, he said we should go to dinner sometime.”

But the two women are also fiercely competitive and have a long, sometimes nasty, political history with each other. During McCaskill’s unsuccessful bid for governor in 2004, the Missouri GOP ran an attack ad that seized on her and her husband’s personal wealth. Wagner was chairwoman of the state party at the time.

“They’re still human beings, but these are also two vicious political animals,” a Missouri Republican said. 

“You’d have to buy tickets to that,” quipped one member of the Missouri delegation.

No one doubts McCaskill is a survivor. The top GOP target in 2012, the politically savvy senator engineered one of the most unlikely reelection victories in recent history. McCaskill plunked down hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ad propping up GOP Rep. Todd Akin as “Missouri’s true conservative.” He prevailed in a crowded primary, and then self-destructed in the general election after uttering two unfortunate words — “legitimate rape” — on a local TV show.

To this day, Republicans believe anyone but Akin could have beat McCaskill that year. In that same election, Mitt Romney trounced Barack Obama in Missouri, 53.8 percent to 44.4 percent.

That’s part of the reason why Wagner, who replaced Akin in the House, might see McCaskill’s Senate seat as the best opportunity to move up the ladder. 

In 2011, Wagner, a former No. 2 official at the RNC, ran for RNC chair. But she and other candidates were defeated by Wisconsin’s Reince Priebus, who is now overseeing the raucous GOP primary process. 

“Boy am I glad I didn’t win that,” joked Wagner, who first endorsed Jeb Bush, then Ted Cruz after Bush dropped out.

In the interview, Wagner made clear she has no desire to make another run for the top job at the RNC next January.

“I care deeply about the party and the direction that we take, and I’ve stayed involved at the NRCC as the finance chair,” she said, “but I have no aspirations to chair the RNC, especially at this point in time.”

Tags Barack Obama Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Roy Blunt Sam Graves Ted Cruz
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