Ann Wagner
Representative Ann Wagner, a Republican from Missouri, speaking at the post GOP House conference meeting press conference. (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP Images)

By the natural laws of the Trump-Biden era, Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District should be one of the more likely pickups for Democrats in 2022. Well educated and middle class, the district, immediately west of St. Louis, resembles northern Virginia and other suburban areas that increasingly have formed the backbone of the Democratic coalition. In 2020, Joe Biden lost the district by a scant .02 percent. 

Several promising Democratic hopefuls are running in the primary for a chance to unseat Republican Ann Wagner. They include freshman state Representative Trish Gunby, who narrowly defeated a Republican incumbent in 2020; Ray Reed, a 24-year-old Black progressive who was an aide to the state’s former Democratic Governor Jay Nixon; and Ben Samuels, a 30-year-old moderate with a Harvard MBA who worked for former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a centrist Democrat, and for Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican. Of the three, Samuels’s bipartisan profile most closely matches the district, and he has raised the most money. 

Yet moving Missouri’s 2nd into the Democratic camp will be tough. That’s partly because of Biden’s low poll numbers, as well as a potential GOP-led redistricting plan that, depending on how it plays out, could increase Wagner’s advantage. But at a deeper level, Missouri’s 2nd lacks a key factor that has propelled other suburban districts from red to blue in recent cycles: high levels of economic growth, and with it, rapid demographic change. That anemic growth, common in other heartland metro areas, is an underappreciated reason why Democrats continue to struggle politically, as Daniel Block has reported in these pages.

The 2nd District is huge, stretching from grassy farmland and conservation areas in Eureka and Weldon Spring in the west to the historic houses and old-timey boulevards of Clayton in the east, where the skyline of St. Louis is in full view. And for the past 30 years, it has remained Republican. Todd Akin, a onetime anti-abortion activist, won the district six times between 2000 and 2010, only once by a margin of less than 20 points. (He crashed and burned during a 2012 Senate campaign when he claimed that women can’t get pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape.”) Suburban alienation over Trump has chipped away at those leads, but not quite enough: The more moderate Wagner won with 51.2 percent of the vote in 2020.

Gerrymandering has helped to contain Democratic gains in the district, but that’s only one part of the picture. Suburban areas tend to “blue-ify” in proportion to their economic and population growth—the more younger, educated, professional, and nonwhite people arrive, the more the district votes Democratic. Over the past several decades, St. Louis and other heartland cities have barely grown. Instead, economic activity has been concentrated in a couple dozen metro areas where oligarchic corporations are increasingly headquartered (Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, etc.), or are government capitals (D.C., Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis–St. Paul, etc.) that enjoy robust public contracting sectors. 

St. Louis has neither of these advantages. Between 1970 and 2017, Greater St. Louis’s population grew at a rate of just 0.26 percent. Over the same period, northern Virginia added about 2 million people, an increase of 200 percent that has turned Virginia, as a whole, mostly blue.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ben Samuels is running for the seat on a message of economic growth. On a recent Zoom call, he wore a confident smile as he told me about his upbeat vision for the metro area’s economic future. “There’s a lot of really wonderful things happening in St. Louis,” he said, going on to list the ways in which the Gateway City has the potential to rise again as an economic powerhouse. “In terms of entrepreneurship and biotech, medical innovation, and agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship, that is exciting, and has the potential to bring jobs and opportunity and people to the city and back to the region,” he said.

Samuels’s boosterism is a typical St. Louis trait, and not altogether misplaced. With its storied Cardinals baseball franchise, excellent cultural amenities (symphony, art museum, zoo), world-class institutions of higher learning like Washington University in St. Louis, and abundant affordable housing, the area has all the ingredients for robust growth. Indeed, it has nurtured one of the country’s more dynamic tech start-up scenes.

Despite these advantages, however, St. Louis has yet to achieve the same economic lift-off of more booming cities. This is largely due to forces beyond its control, chief among them industry consolidation. Ever since the Reagan administration dialed back enforcement of the nation’s antitrust laws, St. Louis has seen one major employer after another get bought up: aircraft maker McDonnell Douglas in 1997, food processor Ralston Purina in 2001, May Department Stores in 2005, agrichemical and biotech giant Monsanto in 2018. In 1980, 22 Fortune 500 companies were headquartered in St. Louis. Today, just eight are. And many of its most successful start-ups, instead of growing locally, have been getting acquired by larger tech firms on the coasts. All this means fewer good jobs to draw in new residents or keep young St. Louisans from leaving for greener pastures.

Samuels, a sixth-generation St. Louisan, illustrates that dynamic through his own life story. His great-great-grandfather started a shoe business with his sons back in 1913 that would go on to employ hundreds, with bases of operations in the city and in nearby Fulton. Yet Samuels himself has spent most of his professional life outside of St. Louis, including a stint at a tech start-up that later got acquired by Mastercard. He eventually moved from the private to the public sector, and then, in March 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, from Boston back to St. Louis, where he began contemplating a House run several months later. 

“I started thinking about running when it really felt like democracy was at peril,” he said. “When you have more elected officials who are denying election results and taking people’s right to vote away and in ways that I found frightening and motivating.” 

Samuels told me he’s in this race because he thinks he can win. The two previous challengers felt the same way. In 2018, Cort VanOstran, a young trial lawyer and Washington University graduate, won that year’s Democratic primary and saw potential for the general election. Democratic Senate candidate Jason Kander had lost the district by just half a percentage point in 2016. Former Governor and Democrat Jay Nixon actually won it in 2012. The bones were there, he believed. 

“Politically thoughtful Democrats knew that this was a district that was ripe,” VanOstran told me. He came within four points of Wagner. Two years later, looking at how close VanOstran got, state Senator Jill Schupp entered the 2020 race with similar high hopes. “I wouldn’t have done this, I wouldn’t have wasted people’s time or their money if I didn’t believe that we could do something to turn it around,” Schupp told me. “So I wasn’t just running to have a Democratic name on the ballot. I was running to win.” Despite 11 months of hard campaigning, she lost to Wagner by more than 6 points. 

Both candidates were hindered by district lines gerrymandered by Republicans to skirt predominantly Black and heavily Democratic neighborhoods. “I mean, the lines are drawn very, very intentionally to maximize the Republican vote,” VanOstran noted. As a result of that statewide map, Republicans currently control of six of Missouri’s eight congressional seats—even though Trump only won 56 percent of the state’s vote in 2020. 

Yet gerrymandering doesn’t fully explain why the 2nd District has remained frustratingly out of reach for Democrats. In other states where GOP-led governments drew similarly aggressive maps, Democrats have nevertheless managed to add suburban seats. A prime example is Georgia’s 6th District. Located in the outskirts of Atlanta, it was long a Republican stronghold—home to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Yet in a 2017 special election, Democrat Jon Ossoff came startlingly close to taking the seat before going on to win a 2021 runoff election for U.S. senator, and Lucy McBath brought the district home for Democrats in 2018 and again in 2020. The same blue shift has taken place in suburban Kansas City, Kansas; Columbus, Ohio; and Des Moines, Iowa—all states where the GOP wields redistricting power.

What distinguishes these other districts, more than anything else, is that they enjoy substantially higher levels of economic growth than Missouri’s 2nd. Over the long term, the best way for Democrats to expand the map and compete politically is with national policies that allow more places like St. Louis to compete economically. Enhanced antitrust enforcement, which the Biden administration has begun, is a good start.

In the meantime, Democratic candidates will have to campaign on visions of what their local economies could be with the right policies. That’s the strategy Samuels is employing, with a relentless, Ted Lasso–like optimism. St. Louis can thrive economically, he told me, by “making sure that we’re investing in the infrastructure that we have, investing in the entrepreneurship, investing in manufacturing and auto manufacturing, and investing in community college and rescaling programs that make sure that people have the skills in technology and manufacturing, to make sure that their skills are relevant in the modern workforce.” Whether that vision is enough for him to win the August primary and the November election will be decided by the voters. 

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Gregory Svirnovskiy, a former Washington Monthly intern, is a journalist based in Evanston, Illinois.