Health-themed campaign targets Missouri GOP congresswoman

FILE - This combination of photos shows candidates for Missouri's 2nd Congressional District seat in the November 2018 election, from left, Democrat Cort VanOstran and incumbent Republican Rep. Ann Wagner. (AP Photo/File)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Missouri appears largely immune from the potential blue wave brewing in congressional races elsewhere, though a first-time candidate is hoping his health care-focused campaign can flip one suburban St. Louis seat to Democrats.

Incumbents are expected to coast to re-election in seven of Missouri’s eight congressional districts, five of them staunchly Republican. Democrats, though, see an opportunity in the 2nd District, where 30-year-old Cort VanOstran is taking on three-term Republican Rep. Ann Wagner.

VanOstran is a Harvard graduate and lawyer who has volunteered for Democratic candidates since high school. It’s unclear what sort of shot he really has as no reliable polling has been conducted.

Wagner has the advantage of incumbency, better name recognition, and a district that has been solidly Republican for more than a quarter of a century. She also has a big edge in fundraising: Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Wagner with $2.6 million cash on hand and VanOstran with $378,000.

But VanOstran raised $742,734 in the quarter ending Sept. 30, more than double Wagner’s $357,831 in contributions. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is enthusiastic enough that last month it added the 2nd District to its “Red to Blue” list, putting it among Republican-held House seats targeted for takeover.

“I think after the primary, Cort showed he had put together a very strong campaign, done everything that was necessary to make this a really competitive race,” DCCC spokeswoman Amanda Sherman said. She declined to say if the DCCC would spend any money on ads in the district.

Wagner, 56, decided to seek a fourth term after considering a run for Senate against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. Several high-profile Republicans supported Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is locked in a tight battle with McCaskill.

Wagner has won easily in her previous congressional elections — her closest was a 21-point win in 2016. She acknowledges this year could be tighter. But she believes the combative nomination process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh provided a turning point for GOP candidates.

“The Democrats are highly motivated across the country,” Wagner said. “But I will say that the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination process really did seem to energize both Republicans and a good number of independents, frankly.”

St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said there’s “no chance” Wagner will lose, noting that the last Democrat to represent the district was Joan Kelly Horn, who was ousted in the 1992 election.

“Yes, it will be a Democratic year, but Wagner will survive it,” Warren said.

Experts see suburban district races like the 2nd as referendums on President Donald Trump. Wagner is a strong supporter of the president, calling him someone who “keeps his word and gets things done.” He cites the economy, regulatory reform and other issues.

VanOstran said he’s focusing his campaign on issues, not Trump.

“What people really want is a Congress that will work with the president when that’s the right thing to do and aren’t afraid to stand up to him when that’s the right thing to do,” he said.

VanOstran, like many other Democrats across the country, is campaigning on health care, specifically coverage of pre-existing conditions. For him, it’s a highly personal issue.

VanOstran’s mother died of breast cancer in 2016. She relied on health care provided through the Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare, something Republicans including Wagner have sought to repeal.

“When I saw Ann Wagner vote to cut 23 million Americans off their coverage that for me was what prompted me to get into the race,” VanOstran said.

Wagner called herself a “strong proponent of covering pre-existing conditions,” noting her co-sponsorship of the 2017 Pre-Existing Conditions Protection Act that she said would have would have maintained protections even if Obamacare was repealed.

VanOstran said the proposal Wagner co-sponsored would have allowed insurance companies to “charge anything they want for people with pre-existing conditions.” Wagner said the plan VanOstran favors would actually take away health care from most of her constituents, who largely have insurance through their employers.

“I think there is still a very strong sense that Obamacare is unaffordable and unworkable, and we need something that is patient-centered,” Wagner said.

VanOstran said he senses that energy and momentum are on his side. “We have a real opportunity to surprise a lot of folks,” he said.

Wagner said she isn’t taking re-election for granted.

“I take every race very seriously,” she said.

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AP reporter David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.



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