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Republican mapmakers in Missouri intent on maximizing the party’s hold on congressional seats for the next decade undoubtedly have their sights set on the 2nd District.
The seat, which takes in most of St. Louis County and some exurbs, is a poster child for one of the starkest political shifts of the Trump era: Well-educated suburbs that were once strongly Republican have become more competitive since Donald Trump became the face of the GOP.
After voting decisively Republican for president in 2012 and 2016, Missouri’s 2nd backed Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 election by just over 100 votes. That made it the most closely contested congressional district in the country, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government.
But the district’s hold on that title may end quickly, with the GOP in control of redistricting.
“With redistricting coming up and the likelihood that it’s going to turn more Republican-friendly, I think Democrats’ best chance at this seat was in 2018 — and now I think it’s passed them by,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri Republican strategist.
Classifying Missouri’s 2nd District as a swing area was unimaginable a decade ago, after it was redrawn following the 2010 census. Its emergence as one puts it squarely on the chopping block for Republicans as they draw the lines again before the 2022 elections.
In 2012, Rep. Ann Wagner (R) was first elected to the House with 60% of the vote as Mitt Romney carried the district 57%-41% over President Barack Obama. In 2016, Trump won the district 53%-42% over Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Trump and Biden each received 49%.
“Ten years ago, it was a relatively safe Republican district. It has become more competitive, particularly in the Trump era,” David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said in an interview. He compared Missouri’s 2nd to suburban districts outside Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.
It’s by far the highest-income and best-educated district in the state, with a median household income of about $89,000 a year and 52% of adults age 25 or older holding a bachelor’s degree or more. Of the 33 districts nationwide where at least half of those 25 or older achieved that level of education, Missouri’s 2nd District and Texas’ 3rd District in metropolitan Dallas are the only ones held by Republicans.
“An educated suburban electorate is not exactly Trump space. Suburban areas in many states are where Republicans have lost some ground under Trump,” Kimball said.
As the district became less Republican under Trump, Wagner had competitive races in her past two elections.
In 2018, when Democrats capitalized on anti-Trump sentiment to win control of the House, Wagner was held to a 51%-47% win over Cort VanOstran, a young lawyer and first-time candidate for political office. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) carried the 2nd District as she lost her re-election bid in 2018 to Republican Josh Hawley, who was backed by Trump.
Last year, Wagner faced a bigger-spending challenge from Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp, who assailed the incumbent’s record on health care and prescription drugs. Despite Trump’s near loss in the district, Wagner — a skilled political operative who previously led the Missouri Republican Party and ran for Republican National Committee chair — won by a slightly more comfortable margin of 52%-46%, after attacking Schupp’s voting record on taxes and touting her own work in Congress to curb human trafficking.
Anita Manion, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Wagner benefited from voters who decided to “balance the ticket” by backing Biden and rejecting Trump’s tone and rhetoric while preferring her for Congress. Wagner received about 11,000 more votes than Trump, while Schupp took about 18,000 fewer votes than Biden. Wagner also took Schupp’s challenge seriously.
“She came out strong and early against Jill Schupp,” Manion said.
Not For Long
Republicans are likely to buttress the district for the next decade for Wagner or a potential Republican successor, should Wagner seek another political office or retire. After passing on a Senate campaign in 2018, Wagner’s considering a bid to succeed retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R) next year.
According to Census Bureau estimates, Missouri’s 2nd needs to add a net of about 17,000 people to meet a requirement that districts within a state be about equal in population. The 2nd is abutted by freshman Rep. Cori Bush‘s (D) 1st District, a Democratic stronghold that includes the city of St. Louis and the rest of St. Louis County, and by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer‘s (R) 3rd District, a GOP bastion mostly west of the 2nd. The 1st needs to gain population as well, while the 3rd must shed some.
Republican mapmakers could shore up Wagner’s district by shifting Democratic precincts in St. Louis County to Bush’s district and adding more of fast-growing and Republican-leaning St. Charles County from Luetkemeyer’s district. Along with Rep. Jason Smith (R), Wagner and Luetkemeyer also share Jefferson County south of St. Louis — an ancestrally Democratic but culturally conservative area that’s shifted to the Republicans over the past two decades.
“I suspect that there will be more of St. Charles County introduced into the 2nd District, which will benefit Republicans,” Manion said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org