It was billed as the battle royale for the establishment mantle, the primary that would decide who emerged as the alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. But when John Kasich bested Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie in New Hampshire last week, Republicans were left with more confusion than certainty. Kasich, often dismissed as an afterthought in the GOP presidential primary, had put himself on the map in the Granite State. But it remained unclear where else on the map he could go from there.
While Rubio and Bush have spent the past year building up campaign organizations that span a number of key states, Kasich focused almost all of his campaign’s time and resources on New Hampshire. His tunnel vision left other campaigns dismissing him almost all together. The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, one Rubio advisor described a possible finish behind Kasich as “a temporary inconvenience,” because no matter how well the Ohio governor did in New Hampshire, he would have no obvious path to the nomination. He would almost certainly do well in his home state of Ohio, a winner-take-all contest on March 15 that could net him 66 delegates in one stroke, but there were few states in the intervening five weeks that seemed geared to Kasich’s strengths.
“Before New Hampshire he couldn’t get a peep in. Now, they’re watching him,” says former Virginia congressman and former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Davis, who is backing Kasich.
As the six remaining GOP candidates muddle along to an unclear conclusion, people around Kasich believe he can ride the newfound interest in his campaign — and the momentum and influx of money that come with it — to keep himself competitive through Ohio. There’s “no make-or-break state between now and then,” says senior Kasich adviser Tom Rath, who helped engineer the campaign’s second-place finish in New Hampshire. But, he says, Kasich “made himself relevant” in New Hampshire, and it is in his interest to stay relevant.
“If you’re in the story you don’t want to fall out of the story,” Rath says. And “the story’s in South Carolina.”
Kasich has shifted his schedule to spend more time in South Carolina. The public polling there looks more promising for him than anticipated, and he drew huge crowds at some preliminary campaign events. On the one hand, says Rath, a campaign needs to be careful not to buy into its own hype. On the other hand, he says, “you have to trust what you see.”
The campaign has little to lose by giving South Carolina a shot — the expectations are so low that he is almost certain to outperform them.
The campaign has little to lose by giving South Carolina a shot — the expectations are so low that he is almost certain to outperform them. On Wednesday, he earned the endorsement of The State, the second-biggest newspaper statewide. And being where the other remaining candidates are battling fiercely keeps him a part of the conversation, while the low expectations allow him to hum along mostly unscathed. In the debate last weekend in Greenville, Kasich at one point seemed to shrug as the other candidates ripped one another to shreds. “This is crazy,” he told the moderator.
After South Carolina, the circus will move — briefly — to Nevada, where several Republicans spoke favorably of the organization Kasich has been able to build up in a short time. “Since New Hampshire ended, people have come out of the woodwork to say, ‘What can I do to help?’” says Zachary Moyle, Kasich’s state director for Nevada. He adds that, as in South Carolina, the Kasich camp’s goal for Nevada is to “keep the momentum going,” which shouldn’t be a difficult task given the almost non-existent expectations they face in the Silver State.
Virginia, also on March 1, could be an opening for Kasich. Davissees the Ohio governor as being competitive in Northern Virginia and particularly Fairfax County, highly populated areas where moderate Republicans tend to fare very well. (Davis, himself a moderate Republican, represented Fairfax County in the House.) Kasich is slated to appear at George Mason University in Fairfax on Monday.
Kasich’s orbit also sees an opening in a handful of other Southern states voting on March 1. Though the South doesn’t present the most obviously fertile ground for him, Kasich could tap into the institutional backing he has in Alabama, where Governor Robert Bentley has endorsed him, and in Mississippi, where he has the support of former Senate majority leader Trent Lott. But those states could be challenging, as both have high thresholds for securing delegates: 15 percent in Mississippi and 20 percent in Alabama.
Still, Kasich’s biggest target other than his native Ohio remains Michigan, which will hold its primary on March 8. Kasich’s advisers have long said he could do well in the Midwest, which votes later in the calendar but is littered with winner-take-all states. Of those, Michigan, with its 59 delegates, comes first.
Kasich’s biggest target other than his native Ohio remains Michigan, which will hold its primary on March 8.
Kasich made his first stops there in the days after the New Hampshire primary, while his competition stumped through South Carolina. Though he cannot devote the same amount of time to the Great Lakes State as he devoted to New Hampshire, his campaign is ramping up its efforts there. Earlier this month, in the final weeks before New Hampshire’s primary, about 300 people to Michigan there from Ohio to work on the ground for the Kasich campaign and the main pro-Kasich super PAC. Kasich could be able to coax an even larger band of supporters to Michigan, given its close proximity to Ohio.
But it is Ohio, on March 15, that presents the biggest moment — and test — of his campaign. Kasich is wildly popular in his home state, and he has the loyalty of the Republican apparatus there. The expectation among Republicans both inside his circle and outside is that he will be favored to win. And if all goes as he hopes at home, he would next seek to consolidate support in the rest of the Midwest, starting with Illinois, which holds its primary the same day as Ohio.
The challenge for Kasich is convincing skeptical free-agent donors and endorsers that it is he who should be the establishment candidate to take on Trump and Cruz, and not Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. Bush, it seems possible, might make that argument for him. Despite reviving his campaign with a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, Bush has yet to achieve the kind of success he would seem to need to sustain his campaign. Kasich’s path would get obviously easier if Bush were to exit the race: He could likely pick up some support, financial and otherwise, as the only remaining governor in the race.
But even without Bush, Kasich would still have to contend with Rubio, who poses perhaps a more serious challenge. The Florida senator has long been talked of as the most likely contender for the establishment mantle, especially if he can overcome the perception that he is too inexperienced and scripted, which derailed him in New Hampshire. Rubio’s campaign was designed for the long haul from the beginning, and Kasich would need significant backing to beat him in a head-to-head showdown. That showdown could come in Michigan, where the Rubio campaign plans to play. And the pressure could grow for Kasich to get out if Republicans desperate to defeat Trump and Cruz begin to coalesce around Rubio. If such a scenario arises, Kasich would need to convince those Republicans that they should coalesce around him instead.Kasich got the support of billionaire Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who had previously championed Christie after his New Hampshire showing. But one former senior adviser to Scott Walker says he hears other unaligned Republicans say that while they respect Kasich and take him seriously, they see him as someone more likely to be a power broker if the convention is contested than he is to be the nominee.
That, ultimately, could be Kasich’s most crucial role in this primary. If he controls Ohio’s 66 delegates, plus however many he amasses across the rest of the map, he could have major leverage in a contested convention. And even if the convention is not contested, it will happen in his home state, which is critical to any Republican who hopes to reach the White House. Since Kasich remains highly popular in Ohio, he will play a big role in the general election no matter whom the party nominates. The Ohio governor, regardless of what the other candidates might want, will not disappear quietly.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.