ST. LOUIS — Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, where Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp seeks to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, is prime staging for a national fight over the country’s suburbs.
The relatively affluent and educated, majority white district — which takes in much of St. Louis County and parts of St. Charles and Jefferson counties — has had Republican representation in Congress for all but two of the past 33 years. President Donald Trump won the district, which boasts higher turnout than its counterparts, by 10 percentage points in 2016.
But suburban voters — women in particular — have soured on the GOP under Trump since, leading Democrats in 2018 to retake the House by flipping dozens of suburban districts. Wagner, who won three previous elections by 20 or more points, saw her lead shaved to 4 points against political newcomer Cort VanOstran, whose campaign focused on fighting GOP efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
“She has absolutely voted against the interests of this district,” said Schupp, 65, of Creve Coeur, who launched her bid in late 2019, “and I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore.”
But Wagner said there are better, more cost-effective alternatives to the Affordable Care Act. Moreover, she says her constituents have benefited from policies advanced by Trump and the GOP.
“I line up dead ahead in terms of the policies that he has promoted,” said Wagner, 58, of Ballwin, “that I think have helped lead to some of the greatest economic growth, and safety and security in our world, and in our country, that we’ve ever seen.”
COVID a top issue
The candidates have stark policy differences reflecting their parties’ centrist positions on issues including abortion access, immigration and gun ownership.
But ahead of the Nov. 3 election, COVID-19 — and its impact on the economy as well as health care — is on the top of voters’ minds, both Wagner and Schupp said.
Schupp has criticized what she said were delays by the GOP-controlled Missouri Legislature and Gov. Mike Parson to order social distancing and use federal aid to trace the virus’ spread. She said Wagner’s continued support for a lawsuit by Republican attorneys general to invalidate the ACA underscores a failed response to the virus by Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate.
“This party has not stepped up to help us as a nation get past COVID, and certainly Ann Wagner hasn’t either,” she said. “How are we going to rebuild the economy with this virus still taking people’s lives?”
Wagner, who quarantined herself in March after potential exposure to COVID-19, said Democrats’ criticism of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic doesn’t take into account that little was known initially about how the virus spreads and the best ways to fight it.
“I think that’s just political posturing,” she said of Schupp’s criticisms.
Wagner paid for local radio advertisements encouraging people to wear masks and social distance, she said, and made legislation like stimulus checks and unemployment aid a focus for the Republican Suburban Caucus, a group she chairs of 32 GOP House members representing suburban districts.
With the election looming, she has also publicly called on St. Louis County government to distribute federal coronavirus aid to the county’s 88 municipalities, blasting county leadership before a House Financial Services committee meeting Sept. 10.
Wagner grew up in south St. Louis County and studied business administration at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She worked as a manager at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City and Ralston Purina in St. Louis before entering politics, becoming a prolific Republican fundraiser and top official in the Missouri and national GOP parties.
In 2005, she was appointed by former President George W. Bush as ambassador to Luxembourg. She won election to the House in 2012, where she now serves on the House committees on foreign affairs and financial services.
Wagner lists among her chief accomplishments the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a 2015 law that criminalized the advertisement of trafficked children, and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking, or FOSTA, Act, a 2018 law she pushed with then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, designed to curb sex trafficking and prostitution by reducing legal protections for online advertising platforms. She has also fought to keep federal funding for local production of military planes.
Schupp, whose state senate district encompasses a politically mixed area with some of St. Louis County’s most affluent communities, is one of few Missouri Democrats to win a high-profile race in recent election cycles. In 2014, she narrowly defeated Republican Jay Ashcroft in the 24th Senate District; Ashcroft is now secretary of state.
Schupp grew up in University City and graduated from the University of Missouri. She worked at public schools in California before becoming an elementary school teacher in Normandy, and later went to work at an advertising agency.
She was elected in 2000 to the Ladue School Board, the Creve Coeur City Council in 2007, and the Missouri House in 2008. She has represented western St. Louis County suburbs in the Legislature as both a House member and senator.
She has listed as her chief accomplishments Nathan’s Law, which aimed to increase safety at day care centers by restricting capacity, and the Justice for Survivors Act, creating a network of nurse practitioners to handle sexual assault cases. She has also pushed legislation to forbid “surprise” emergency-room bills and to require training for mental health professionals to help curtail youth suicide.
Health care, crime
The competitiveness of the race has seen both candidates launch a slew of advertisements that echo their counterparts’ ads in other House races: Democrats slam Republicans for votes to repeal the ACA; Republicans have touted police support while trying to tie Democrats to left-wing proposals like defunding police and universal health care.
Schupp does not support defunding police nor universal health care, she said. She wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act with more public options, while allowing people to remain with private insurance if they choose, Schupp said.
“What I support is a public option that allows people to get the care that they need,” she said.
She pointed to an Aug. 4 vote to expand Medicaid with federal funding from the ACA. The ballot issue won the support of 53% of Missouri voters. Schupp had unsuccessfully pushed for Medicaid expansion in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“I wasn’t able to get that done through the Legislature,” Schupp said, “but the people of Missouri clearly wanted it done.”
Wagner says she will protect preexisting conditions with a bill she introduced in 2019 that would write the protection into federal patients’ rights laws, and support health savings accounts and association health care plans, which allow people to buy coverage pooled through industry groups.
“We’ve got to lift up the private insurance market and allow for association health care plans, making sure that we have catastrophic coverage that you can buy across state lines,” she said.
Wagner has campaigned on conservative values, including scaling back regulations, and a firm stance against abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or dangerous pregnancy.
“I believe my views on life are more in line with the district than Jill Schupp’s radical, extreme views on the issue,” she said.
And she has touted endorsements from the Missouri Farm Bureau, National Rifle Association, the St. Louis County Police Association, and the state police and firefighters unions.
“This is a law-and-order district,” Wagner said.
Wagner, in addition to advertisements trying to tie Schupp to left-wing movements, also accused Schupp of “siding with dangerous criminals” in an ad labeled “mostly false” by the nonpartisan Politifact.
Schupp said the ads are a deflection, and accused Wagner of being absent from the district.
“People want access to who is representing them,” Schupp said.
Schupp has campaigned on supporting Obama-era immigration policies, reentering the Paris Agreement on climate, and strengthening labor unions, touting endorsements from the Missouri AFL-CIO and Sierra Club. She was endorsed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and longtime Creve Coeur Mayor Harold Dielmann, a Republican.
She supports abortion access and health care coverage providing women access to contraceptives.
“I trust women,” she said, “to make the right decision for themselves and their families.”
Schupp, who has vowed not to accept campaign contributions from corporations, has outraised Wagner in recent months after launching her campaign in December. As of July, she raised just more than $2 million, according to the latest filings available from federal elections officials. Top donors include lawyers and lobbyists, educators and labor groups.
Wagner, with national connections through the state and national GOP parties, has raised about $3.3 million this election cycle as of July, according to FEC reports. Her top donors include the insurance and finance industries and conservative political action committees.
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