Ohio Governor John Kasich is a peculiar character in this Republican field. On paper he’s the ultimate presidential candidate, but he is struggling to break through in a political year where the unpredictable has become the new normal.
The 63-year old’s resume couldn’t be any better for a presidential candidate, at least by traditional standards.
- He sat at the helm of the House Budget Committee at a time when the federal government was balancing the budget and reforming welfare - economic accomplishments that were also in-line with conservative ideals.
- He served on the House Armed Services Committee his entire 18-year Congressional career, which would give him credibility as the presidential campaign has taken an immediate turn to foreign policy.
- He left Washington and the government for a decade – by choice – where he worked in the private sector doing odd jobs, including hosting a television show on Fox News and working at Lehman Brothers in Ohio giving him private-sector bona-fides.
- After jumping back into politics, he won two terms as Ohio’s governor, landing coveted executive experience in a politically, socially, economically and racially diverse state.
No Experience Necessary
Kasich has not yet been able to translate his resume and experience into support, however, as Republican voters continue to cling to the outside insurgents: Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Kasich is polling in the low single digits in national polls and high single digits in New Hampshire - far behind Trump and Carson - as voters say they prefer candidates with nontraditional political resumes who operate outside of establishment circles.
Kasich is just one of the governors who are faring poorly in the presidential race right now. All three Republican candidates who have dropped out of the race are state executives - Scott Walker, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are struggling just like Kasich, stuck in the second and third tier of candidates according to polls. So is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses.
This phenomenon visibly frustrates Kasich who is wildly popular at home. In his re-election in 2014, Kasich won all but two of the state's 88 counties and his approval rating is above 60 percent. A focus group of general election voters in Ohio conducted this week had mostly positive things to say about their governor. Voters called him experienced, brash but competent, forthright and financially smart. Thomas D., an undecided voter from Columbus, said he doesn’t want Kasich to win the White House because, “I don’t want to lose him as governor!”
"I've Just Reached the Tipping Point"
That frustration has been on display on the campaign trail in recent weeks. In a memorable moment last month, the campaigner who rarely criticizes his opponents lashed out.
"Do you know how crazy this election is? Let me tell you something. I've about had it with these people," Kasich said at a rally in late October. A furious Kasich called Trump’s immigration plan “crazy” and Carson’s flat tax plan a fantasy.
During an interview with Kasich on his campaign bus in New Hampshire during a twenty-minute drive from Concord to Londonderry, Kasich said those comments were not part of planned talking points or said for political gain but that he couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I’ve just reached the tipping point that I wanted to say these things,” he said.
Then asked what he would do if Trump wins the nomination, he first dismissed the question as a hypothetical, but then quickly became animated saying “It’s not gonna happen.”
At townhalls across New Hampshire he dismisses the outsider phenomenon as having little staying power. He likens it to a football game, saying that after repeated losses the coach doesn’t invite the fans from the stands to play. “We don’t do that, right?”
Kasich's team is now actively working to make sure that Trump isn't the nominee. The super PAC backing him has launched a $2.5 million ad buy in New Hampshire attacking Trump. He's the first candidate to launch such an attack on the GOP front-runner.
The Great Compromise
One reason his lengthy history in elective office isn't winning over Republican primary voters is his history of working with Democrats. Kasich's biggest accomplishments in Congress happened when Bill Clinton was president. He touted appointing a Democrat to co-chair a task force on community and police in Ohio. He also said he would appoint a Democrat to a hypothetical Kasich cabinet.
“We’re Americans before we’re Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “It’s all about philosophy and I do think in a cabinet, it’s always good within certain bounds to have some disrupters. It’s always good ‘cause you want people to speak truth to power. That’s the way you make good decisions.”
While that rationale might work well in a general election audience, it’s more than just a hindrance in this Republican primary race.
The Payoff and Pitfalls
Kasich appeals to Democrats and Independents, which can be useful in New Hampshire where more than 40 percent of registered voters are unaffiliated.
At an event at the University of New Hampshire School of Business, two of the five people randomly chosen to interview identified themselves as a Democrat “interested” in Kasich.
“I’m interested in voting for a candidate who can change the way things are in Washington, which I’m pretty said about.” Bob Henry of Rochester, NH said. “I think Washington’s lost its way and has become a competition between two teams … and no one seems to want to play with each other anymore.”
Kasich is to the left of his colleagues in many areas. He called Trump’s plan to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants “stupid.” He also is one of the few Republican governors to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He is a supporter of Common Care and believes climate change is caused by humans. And while not necessarily a liberal position, he said he would bail out troubled financial institutions.
Kasich’s close adviser, Doug Preisse, defended Kasich’s stances, calling him “an independent thinker.”
That phenomenon is reflective in New Hampshire polling.
While Kasich’s numbers are on a slight decline, dropping from 10 percent support to 7 percent support in the most recent WBUR poll released Wednesday, tied for fifth with Bush but behind Trump, Carson, Rubio and Cruz, he is doing better among independent candidate. His unfavorables were seven points higher than his favorable among Republican respondents, the opposite was true among Independents. Thirty-five percent in this group have a positive view of him compared to 32 percent who don’t.
But What attracts Kasich to moderates repels him from some Republicans.
After his feisty performance in the fourth Republican debate in Milwaukee last week, a focus group convened by pollster Frank Luntz gave Kaisch the lowest scores of any of the candidates on the stage with one participant saying he was the “biggest liberal on that stage,” according to Real Clear Politics.
When asked about his appeal to Democrats and independents aboard his campaign bus, Kasich said, “Democrats are worried about me more than any other candidates.” He might be right, according to this AP story surveying Democratic convention delegates.
“But I have to win the primaries to get to the general,” Kasich noted.
Kasich is not immune to political pressure. He has shifted some positions to the right during the course of this campaign. Two months after saying Syrian refugees should be allowed to come to the U.S., Kasich changed course after the attacks in Paris, calling for a “pause” and asking President Barack Obama to reconsider their admittance.
And just one day after proposing a new government agency to help defeat ISIS by spreading “Judeo-Christian values,” Kasich reversed course after conservatives intent on reducing the size of government criticized the plan.
All Roads Lead Through New Hampshire
Kasich and his team know that his path to the nomination runs right through the Granite State – a state that is most likely to accept his moderate views and his political experience.
Voters there are known to be smart and more moderate. Not only do so many voters identify as Independents, they, along with Democrats, can vote in the Republican primary.
“I’m going back to New Hampshire two or three days this week, the next week, the week after, the week after, the week after, the week after,” he said at the National Press Club Tuesday. “You get the point.”
Kasich’s allies have spent more than $7 million in television advertisements (before the latest ad buy attacking Trump.) Only Jeb Bush’s supporters have spent more in the state.
Tom Rath, an influential Republican in New Hampshire who is backing Kasich, said the Kasich is the right fit for New Hampshire voters.
“New Hampshire typically likes the person that comes out of the center right,” Rath said.
As of now the Kasich team has faith and as evidence by the amount of advertising the money to keep fighting.
One of his former advisers dating back to his years in Congress, Ron Christie, called him “a happy warrior.”
Kasich agreed. “I think at the end it’ll be fine,” he said.