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Influential Republicans Wary of 2016 Campaign by John Kasich

Influential Republicans unsure of a possible entry into an already-crowded presidential field.
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Influential Republicans are so far not enthusiastic about the potential presidential candidacy of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, not actively discouraging from him running but not urging him to do so either.

Over the last several weeks, the governor has visited the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina and given interviews to a number of national media outlets in which he openly admits he is thinking about a 2016 campaign. On Wednesday night, Kasich spoke and then took questions about his policy views at a Manhattan dinner with a group of prominent conservative writers and activists who have also hosted former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

But there are no signs yet of a major movement to push Kasich into the race the way Democrats have urged both Hillary Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run. Some Republicans say that the views of Kasich, a moderate on some issues, so closely mirror those of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that there is little need for him to enter the race or space for Kasich to distinguish himself.

And many conservatives strongly disagree with Kasich’s emphatic advocacy of his decision to expand Medicaid through Obamacare in Ohio.

“There is no hunger in the land for John Kasich,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, an influential conservative writer and policy expert.

He added, “Jeb Bush is a much more attractive candidate if you are an establishment donor. If you think well maybe Jeb’s not going to be able to make the sale, maybe then you go to Kasich, but even then Rubio’s got to be pretty attractive.”

Avik Roy, a conservative health care expert at the Manhattan Institute, bluntly questioned Kasich on Medicaid at the Wednesday night dinner in New York and came away unimpressed.

“He is passionate about the Medicaid expansion while also claiming he wants to repeal Obamacare,” said Roy. “I can’t say that he answered that in a way that is intellectually coherent. I don’t see how you could.”

After the dinner, which included influential conservatives like former Reagan administration official Larry Kudlow and former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes, the conservative website Newsmax ran a story with the headline, “John Kasich Ruffles Conservative Feathers at NYC Dinner.”

"Problem Kasich has is that there is major overlap w/ his pragmatic, sometimes-scolding version of conservatism and that of Jeb Bush," said Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative magazine National Review, in a Twitter message following the dinner, which he also attended.

The potential of Kasich entering the race illustrates the complexity of a Republican contest with more than a dozen candidates taking steps toward running and no clear front-runner.

The party’s conservative wing has not coalesced around a candidate and is unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Among moderate Republicans, Bush has won over many of the party’s major fundraisers and influential figures like former Secretary of State James Baker. But there are doubts even among those who share Bush’s more liberal stances on issues like immigration about whether he is the right candidate to take on Clinton, because of the negative views voters hold of him because of the controversial White House tenures of his brother and father.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are among a number of candidates courting moderate Republicans along with Bush, and Kasich would be competing with them if he entered the race.

Like Bush, Rubio and Walker, Kasich's major appeal is a record of winning in a key electoral state.

"When I’m traveling around and meeting conservatives, his name never comes up."

Kasich, 62, served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 years. He briefly ran for president during the 2000 campaign, dropping out in 1999 and endorsing George W. Bush.

He left Congress in 2001, but returned to politics in a successful Ohio gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

Like Bush, Kasich is open to the idea of creating a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, has supported the Common Core education stands and occasionally lectures the GOP for being insufficiently concerned about offering policy solutions instead of simply opposing Democrats.

Kasich though, in his advocacy of Medicaid, has gone farther, suggesting that accepting the federal funds for the poor is essentially a requirement for a Christian man like himself.

“Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer,” said two years ago, when describing his Medicaid push.

Ponnuru and other Republicans say this rhetoric is distasteful, as Kasich is not just disagreeing with them on policy but suggesting views different from his are morally wrong.

Kasich won his reelection by more than 30 points in November, compared to Walker’s seven-point win in Wisconsin. But conservatives note that Walker is more effective in advocating for their causes. The Wisconsin governor has successfully pushed through two different bills limiting unions during his tenure, while an anti-union bill signed by Kasich in 2011 was repealed a few months later by Ohio voters in a referendum.

“When I’m traveling around and meeting conservatives, his name never comes up,” said one influential conservative activist who said he has recently met with Kasich. “I am completely unaware of any groundswell for him.”