Supporters of Ohio governor John Kasich held signs at last Tuesday’s victory party memorializing his vanquished Democratic opponents: Ted Strickland, in 2010; Ed Fitzgerald, in 2014. And then a third name, as yet unchallenged: Hillary Clinton.
Those signs would have looked ridiculous in 2011, when Kasich’s attempt to reform the state’s collective-bargaining agreements ended in a “citizen’s veto” of the legislation in a statewide referendum and gave the Democratic party an off-year tune-up ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
That’s the kind of praise that Kasich never received when he ran for president in 1999. Then a House budget hawk, Kasich tried to combine an idiosyncratic demeanor (he described himself as Jolt Cola in a field full of Pepsi and Coke) with a campaign platform that he hoped voters would perceive as both compassionate and conservative. It didn’t take long for Texas governor George W. Bush to back a Brink’s truck full of money over that plan; Kasich dropped out in July of that year.
Fifteen years later, it’s Kasich who has crushed a political upstart. The Ohio governor defeated his hapless Democratic challenger, Ed Fitzgerald, 62–31. Kasich won 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Cuyahoga County, where, in 2012, Cleveland voters gave President Obama a 40-point win over Mitt Romney. “In a pivotal state, maybe the pivotal state, he won a crushing victory, and that’s noticed throughout the Republican party,” former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber tells National Review Online.
“He realized that it was time to move on to other issues, and I think he did it very strongly,” says former Ohio house speaker JoAnn Davidson, a longtime Kasich ally.
Kasich returned to the theme that helped him shake the Wall Street fat-cat image during his campaign: jobs and the economy. He cut taxes, balanced the budget from the $8 billion shortfall that Strickland left behind, filled the state’s rainy-day fund, launched a new job-creation initiative, and streamlined the state government’s 77 job-training programs. From 2011 to 2014, the Ohio unemployment rate beat the national average as the state’s businesses created a quarter of a million jobs. Kasich also signed prison-sentencing reform into law and quadrupled the size of the school-choice program.
That record, combined with the failures of the Democratic nominee — “Ed Fitzgerald is the equivalent of the national Democrats running Michael Dukakis,” according to one Ohio political observer — ensured Kasich’s reelection this year.
Most controversially, he implemented — through executive action — the Medicaid expansion offered by the federal government as a provision of Obamacare. “It was important because it said to some people that Kasich is not just a one-size-fits-all ideological conservative,” said GOP strategist Terry Casey, a longtime friend of the governor’s.
The Medicaid expansion angered conservative voters who had rallied behind Kasich in 2010, when he declared that he was “in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” but the move shouldn’t surprise anyone who remembers his presidential campaign. “It’s okay to stand up and tell people in your party that they’re too mean,” Kasich said on the campaign trail in 1999.
“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’s going to ask you what you did for the poor,” Kasich likes to say today, to the irritation of Obamacare opponents.
The Republican-controlled legislature tried to withhold funds for the expansion — “the Good Samaritan was not funded by taxpayers,” state house Finance and Appropriations Committee chairman Ron Amstutz tells NRO — but Kasich used a small panel of lawmakers to circumvent the full body.
“I believe when you do better you need to reach out to people who live in the shadows and give them a bridge so they can participate in the economic promise of America,” Kasich said on Fox News in defense of his actions.
The Medicaid expansion had political benefits, too. It played especially well with Democrats and the kind of blue-collar independents who stayed home when Romney challenged Obama. “He can better understand certain parts of Ohio than most country-club Republicans could,” Casey said of the governor, a mailman’s son.
Though his resounding victory opens the door to a presidential bid, Kasich faces plenty of obstacles.
For one thing, Republican voters have no shortage of blue-state, Medicaid-expanding Republican governors to choose from in the upcoming presidential cycle. In the Midwest, Indiana’s Mike Pence, another former congressman, has foreign-policy chops and a stronger relationship with social conservatives. Michigan governor Rick Snyder has received less presidential buzz, but he has a similar economic-turnaround story to tell.
And of course, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker looms over the region’s governors. He didn’t expand Medicaid, and, unlike Kasich, he cemented his tea-party credibility by beating the unions in a series of showdowns over collective-bargaining reforms.
“There are some people that are first to land on the beach, and sometimes those are the people that get to the promised land first, and sometimes those are the people who get shot up and chewed up,” Casey says, when he surveys the field. “So, there are different ways to get to the promised land, if that’s where you want to get.”
The odds of Kasich emerging as the nominee from the second wave of the campaign are diminished by his past struggles raising money. “Either I solve the realistic problems that dogged me in the last campaign — essentially, the lack of a national financial base — or I won’t run,” he said in 2002.
Chuck Todd’s confidence notwithstanding, Kasich’s allies sound uncertain that he has solved that problem. True, he stockpiled about $20 million for his 2014 campaign. But that haul was facilitated by Ohio’s campaign-finance laws, which have higher donation caps for governors than presidential candidates enjoy. Kasich was also boosted by George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign-finance chairman, Mercer Reynolds, and other Bush donors who live in the Cleveland area. “If Jeb Bush runs, it makes it tougher to reach some of the money people that a Kasich might want and need to have,” Casey says.
As Kasich’s presidential profile grows, he’s likely to take fire from his right flank, even before the campaign gets underway. By pushing for repeal of Obamacare, Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio can keep the issue alive and damaging to Kasich.
President Obama will veto the repeal, and Senate Democrats will filibuster most other Republican initiatives, though, so Kasich will have an opportunity to run against an ineffective Congress. “If you’re not there to do something, I don’t know what the heck you’d be there for,” he said Thursday in a potential preview of that attack.
Kasich won reelection by marrying George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism to John McCain’s maverick image, but some political observers worry that he combines Joe Biden’s political instincts with Chris Christie’s occasionally off-putting brusqueness. “Kasich has a history of making gaffes that end up not being endearing,” said one person who has followed the governor closely. For instance, he had to apologize after calling a police officer “an idiot” multiple times while describing a years-old traffic stop.
That constellation of counterarguments has Kasich’s in-state critics suggesting he has a better shot at the vice-presidential nomination than at the top of the ticket; the Dayton Tea Party, for instance, assumes Kasich aspires to have the Republican nominee view him as the “logical” choice for a running mate.
Davidson and state representative Amstutz promise that Kasich has the political ability to run for any office he wants. “He does have things that he has a lot of passion about and he’ll wind them in,” Amstutz allows, calling the governor a “real person.”
Whatever Kasich decides about a presidential bid, he now faces a crucial six months. He must pass the state’s biennual budget, which means another fight with the state legislature about funding the Medicaid expansion. That will only position him further to the left in the Republican presidential field.
“When he first came in and kind of started laying out his plans, I think some people might have thought he was being too aggressive,” Ohio senate majority leader Tom Patton, a Republican, said last week. “And now, some of the people from his own party might think he’s not aggressive enough — read into that ‘not conservative enough.’”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.