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Ohio Gov. John Kasich became the sixteenth Republican to formally enter the 2016 presidential contest Tuesday, a late start that is likely to be his undoing.
On paper, Kasich has one of the most impressive resumes of any of the candidates running for president. He can tout his understanding of Washington, with 18 years in the House (1983-2001) that included a stint as chair of the Budget Committee when the U.S. had its first budget surplus in decades.
Now in his second term as Ohio’s governor, he also has executive experience, which many Republicans want because they believe some of President Obama’s mistakes in office came in part because he had never previously run a large organization. Republicans almost never win the presidency without carrying Ohio, and Kasich is a proven winner there, getting 64 percent of the vote last year in his reelection bid.
But Kasich also has some clear weaknesses. Even his friends and allies say he can come off as arrogant, sarcastic and too blunt at times. His decision to expand Medicaid as part of Obamacare in 2013 angered conservatives. And the governor has combined his two flaws in the minds of many conservatives by slamming opponents of the Medicaid expansion and suggesting his decision was the proper thing for a Christian to do.
Other Republicans have overcome those kinds of challenges before. John McCain was considered a hot-head by some Republicans before winning the party’s nomination in 2008. Mitt Romney was the author of the law that is the basis of Obamacare.
But the late start looms as a huge additional barrier for Kasich. McCain and Romney won in their second presidential runs, after more than four years of courting party activists. Some of Kasich’s rivals, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have been preparing for presidential runs since 2013, hiring staff and making repeated visits to early primary states.
There is no clear front-runner in the Republican race. Most key figures in the party, including the vast majority of governors and members of Congress, have declined to endorse anyone.
But many of the party’s longtime donors are behind already former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Rubio has been courting billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other super-wealthy donors for months. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has become the favorite of many in the party looking for an alternative to Bush.
Those three men combined have a lot of the support among Republicans looking for a candidate who can win the general election, which is also Kasich’s core pitch.
And a number of other candidates, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have small blocs of the party behind them.
Many Republicans were excited about the field even before Kasich started hinting in April that he would run. The lack of a front-runner does not seem to stem from a lack of enthusiasm for the candidates, but Republicans unable to coalesce around the person they like best.
Fred Thompson entered the 2008 primary race late, as did Rick Perry in 2012, in part because Republicans were dissatisfied with the field. Both lost.
But 2016 is different. There has not been a strong “Draft Kasich” movement urging the Ohio governor to get into the race. There are few visible signs he has much support at all. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, a longtime Kasich friend, has repeatedly praised Bush and left no doubt he supports the former Florida governor.
The danger for Kasich is that Bush and Rubio are so strong among moderate Republicans that he must run to their left. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, tried this tact in 2012 and didn't win a single primary, as moderate Republicans embraced Romney.
But Kasich can still win. Thompson and Perry suffered from a perception that they were both unprepared to be president in terms of policy knowledge and not aggressive enough in running. Kasich seems excited and engaged about his campaign, and he is a policy wonk who was essentially the Paul Ryan of the 1990’s.
If Bush, Rubio and Walker compromise what most Republicans consider the “top tier” of candidates, Kasich has the opportunity to join them. Eight of the party’s candidates simply lack either experience in elective office or support in the party’s more moderate block, making them long-shots: Paul, Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and businessman Donald Trump. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki have shown no signs of getting the GOP behind them, even though they have the traditional views and qualifications of a Republican nominee.
Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have in many ways already been rejected by the party. Perry lost in 2012, and Republican donors have in effect opted for “Anybody But Christie” since the Bridgegate scandal emerged.
Kasich is perhaps the best-positioned candidate outside of the Bush-Rubio-Walker trio to consolidate support and become the GOP nominee.
How he can win? With his support of a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, the Medicaid expansion and the Common Core education standards, Iowa’s conservatives are unlikely to back Kasich.
But he has hired some of the staffers who helped McCain win in New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008. His path must start with a victory there, which would help establish Kasich as the moderate alternative to whoever wins Iowa. Essentially, Kasich has to vanquish Bush, who is the same kind of moderate conservative as the Ohio governor.
New Hampshire is an ideal fit for Kasich. He is a kind of Republican maverick who likes to say whatever comes to his mind, like McCain. And the Granite State is full of the kind of voters who Kasich should have appeal with.
The GOP, as Henry Olsen of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center has explained, is split into “very conservative” voters, “liberal and moderate” voters and the largest bloc, those who are “somewhat conservative.” In New Hampshire, in 2012, 47 percent of GOP primary voters in exit polls described themselves as “moderate to liberal,” compared to 17 percent in Iowa and 32 percent in South Carolina. These New Hampshire voters won't mind a candidate who expanded Medicaid or attended a same-sex wedding, as Kasich did earlier this month.
Kasich has one obvious advantage over Bush in trying to win these moderate Republicans in New Hampshire: his last name is not Bush. Polls suggest voters nationally still closely associate Bush with his brother, and he may simply be a long shot to ever win a general election against Hillary Clinton. Kasich can cast himself as an electable version of Jeb Bush.
If Kasich can win New Hampshire and finish ahead of Bush in South Carolina, he could force the ex-Florida governor from the race and become one of the leading candidates for moderate Republicans. Kasich would be a favorite against any of the other candidates in a one-on-one contest, except Rubio and Walker.
Rubio and Walker are considered more conservative than Kasich, and they could consolidate the “very conservative” vote and win enough “somewhat conservative” voters to beat him.
On the other hand, Kasich is 63, with a long record of experience. If the 44-year-old Rubio is the most Obama-like of the Republican candidates, with a short resume and little executive experience, Kasich is perhaps the most different from the sitting president.
Kasich must defeat three strong challengers to win the primary. And he has handed them a six-month advantage to hire key staff, court donors and work out their campaign themes. Kasich has noted that Bush failed to “take up all the oxygen," leaving the Ohio governor a chance to run.
Still, the combination of Bush, Rubio and Walker leave Kasich with little available breathing room.