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Rep. Ann Wagner (R-2) laid to rest the wide-spread speculation that she would challenge Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill next year when she announced that she planned to run instead to retain her 2nd district House seat. Wagner’s explanation:

The 2nd District is my home,” the third-term congresswoman added. “It’s where I grew up, went to school, have worked and volunteered, raised my kids, and attend church every week — there is no greater honor than representing a place and people that I love.”

Since there are many who would dispute Wagner’s assertion that she represents “people that I love,” given that she is known to treat her constituents as if they are the carriers of infectious disease and assiduously avoids all but the most controlled contact with them, her mommy-dearest statement leaves the questions about her motivations up in the air.

In recent months influential Missouri GOP figures like John Danforth and money-man Sam Fox have conspicuously snubbed Wagner while trying to persuade the new state Attorney General, Josh Hawley, to enter the Senate contest. Since Hawley is relatively inexperienced and lacks Wagner’s political contacts, many have assumed that the effort to recruit Hawley reflects nothing more than Missouri Republican sexism.

I would suggest, however, that, while sexism may play a role in the considerations that animate the GOP power-brokers in Missouri, what we are seeing is a coherent, hard-headed political strategy intended to optimize the chances to keep Wagner’s House seat safely in GOP hands and capture the Senate seat. It’s all a matter of plugging the right people into the right slots at the right time.

Wagner stays where she is – Republican lock on the 2nd remains strong

Wagner would not necessarily be a shoo-in in a state-wide race. As an elitist, corporate Republican she would likely not generate too much enthusiasm among out-state, red-meat conservatives – the same folks who often take exception to the equally corporatist GOP Senator Blunt. Being a woman may not go over as well with that particular constituency either – which is where sexism takes its obligatory bow as part of the political calculus.

On the other hand, Wagner is still the best bet for the 2nd district House race. She has consistently outperformed former Democratic challengers by a large margin. However, although the district retains a strong Republican bias, the last redistricting introduced a more moderate element into the mix. Add to that the fact that, in contrast to former years, three potentially viable Democratic candidates for the 2nd district have come forward and the state party has indicated that they will be offering more support than in past years – suggesting that folks are smelling blood in the water, and another reason that an erstwhile heavy-hitter like Wagner may have been suborned into staying where she is, for the time-being at least. Bringing in a GOP newcomer to run against a well-funded and attractive Democratic candidate could make retaining the seat quite a bit more iffy.

Hawley goes to Washington

Josh Hawley is not only a male, he’s an ultra conservative lawyer who is described by The Washington Examiner as “a conservative dream candidate ” who is “young, energetic, attractive, an outsider — a Federalist Society down the line intellectual.” His public rhetoric and participation in a rightwing religious “discrimination” Supreme Court case have established his evangelical, God-centered-government credentials. All gold I would suppose, at least in the minds of his advocates.

As for finance, one of Wagner’s strong points, given Hawley’s growing list of supporters in GOP power circles, when it comes to the filthy lucre, he shouldn’t have too difficult a time equaling or exceeding her stockpile. And, of course, there’s the fact that McCaskill, who will be running to defend her seat, is widely perceived to be among the most vulnerable Democratic senators. This could be the right time to bring a newcomer into the GOP Washington stable.

Reality check

Of course, such a strategy depends on lots of variables, some of which might just constitute the proverbial monkey wrench in GOP expectations: Trump’s plunging popularity, possible negative Obamacare repeal & replace blowback, and the degree to which Trumpian and Republican excesses have energized Democratic voters. In April, for instance, Politico noted that Democrats who have been assumed to be particularly at risk are posting “eye-popping fundraising numbers,” including Senator McCaskill whose “$2.8 million haul […] shattered fundraising records in Missouri, raising more than any other senator or Senate hopeful in her state during the first quarter of an off year.”

You know how the old saying goes: you shouldn’t count your chickens until they’re hatched. You can’t blame Missouri Republicans, however, for trying to set up the best hatchery that they can – and that effort, more than misogyny, probably accounts for Wagner’s decision. She’s always been a good little GOP trooper.