Politics & Policy

Is John Kasich’s Presidential Run for Real?

Ohio's governor could upend the race for the White House – if he follows through.

For those wondering if John Kasich’s visit to New Hampshire last weekend suggested loftier ambitions for the governor, his creation of a new 527 group on Monday, New Day for America, left little doubt: The Ohio Republican is serious about running for president. Kasich has at times gone out of his way to poke his fellow Republicans in the eye, expanding Medicaid in Ohio and suggesting they don’t care sufficiently for the poor. So, in what is already sure to be a competitive race, many of them may be scratching their heads and asking: Is he serious? And, if so, why bother?

Republican strategists say the Ohio governor isn’t just playing at presidential politics. In fact, though he hasn’t officially declared, they consider him a committed and competitive candidate. Whether he possesses the discipline and humility to endure a grueling primary fight, however, remains an open question.

Kasich has an impressive resume. As chairman of the House Budget Committee in the late 1990s, he presided over a massive federal surplus. As Ohio’s governor, he’s turned an $8 billion budget hole into a $2 billion surplus; killed the death tax; and helped create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the Buckeye State.

Kasich’s appearance at New Hampshire’s First in the Nation Leadership Summit last weekend sparked renewed interest in the swing-state governor, and it’s clear that if he runs, New Hampshire will be his central focus. He has already locked up former New Hampshire senator John E. Sununu, who is acting as one of the directors of the new 527.

“Some of his friends on the ground said, ‘Look, people really liked you in New Hampshire; we think it’s important that you come back to this summit,’” says Chris Schrimpf, who splits his work between the Ohio Republican party and New Day for America. “So the governor came back, and he will probably spend more time in New Hampshire in the future.”

#related#Republican strategists see wisdom behind the governor’s decision to zero in on the nation’s first presidential primary. Though Kasich’s name recognition remains low, New Hampshire’s demonstrated willingness to embrace the unconventional will work to his advantage. “The electorate is looking for a candidate that represents a departure from the status quo, and isn’t a cookie-cutter candidate,” Kevin Madden, a top Republican strategist and a key Romney advisor in 2012, tells National Review.

From his election as an Ohio congressman in 1982 to his failed presidential run in 2000, Kasich has bucked the conventional wisdom of the GOP. He’s been an unapologetic advocate of big government when it claims to serve the poor, and his history is rife with other defiant stands against Republican orthodoxy. “It’s okay to stand up and tell people in your party that they’re too mean,” he said during a campaign event in 1999.

As governor, he used an executive order to expand Medicaid in Ohio. His justification for the decision was particularly galling for many Republicans. “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,” he said in 2013.

That attitude got him into trouble during a March dinner with a group of economic conservatives in New York City. When confronted by Manhattan Institute health-care scholar Avik Roy over the big-government implications of the Medicaid expansion, Kasich characterized the question as an assault on Medicaid recipients. “Maybe you think we should put them in prison. I don’t,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a conservative position.”

But Kasich’s supporters see that abrasiveness as part of his appeal. They believe a politician who’s unafraid to challenge his own party — even if he gets prickly while doing so — could claim the mantle of pragmatism and rally the country’s fractured electorate behind a Republican.

“He colors outside the lines a bit,” Madden says, but as long as he weathers his challenges with fiscal conservatives, Kasich’s demonstrated ability to work across the aisle and embrace unorthodox policies could become “an asset in a campaign.”

“Ohio is a microcosm of the United States,” Schrimpf adds, noting that Kasich’s success with women and African Americans in his last election demonstrates nationwide electability.

Kasich isn’t the only presidential contender counting on that image. New Jersey’s Chris Christie is also seen as a tough-talking pragmatist: a governor with no fear of criticizing Republicans, a history of working with Democrats, and a proven ability to attract women and minority voters in a liberal state. Kasich will need to distinguish himself from Christie in order to succeed in the primaries — a task that will take more than just promising to deliver Ohio’s key electoral votes.

Then there’s the same Bush fundraising juggernaut that scuttled Kasich’s first presidential bid. Republicans are split on its significance.

“The [Jeb] Bush fundraising network is formidable and has to be reckoned with,” Madden says. He thinks Kasich should run a kind of “Moneyball” campaign where limited donations are spent wisely. “I don’t think he’s going to get into the race with the goal of raising the most money, because that’ll be tough to do.”

Others dismiss the Bush fundraising advantage. “History is littered with people who had all the money in the world,” says longtime Kasich ally Terry Casey. After all, both Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Rick Perry in 2012 went into their unsuccessful presidential campaigns with massive amounts of cash.

But even if Kasich overcomes fundraising and ideological hurdles, there’s no guarantee he’ll have the discipline to follow though. In fact, one well-placed observer believes the governor’s personality all but precludes him from making a serious run at the White House.

“John is just a very undisciplined campaigner,” says a Republican strategist with extensive experience on presidential campaigns. “He tends to be very self-involved. . . . He’s like a football player that looks at his own clips too much.”

Noting that Romney attended over 100 town halls in New Hampshire during the ten months before the primary, the strategist doubted Kasich would be able to keep a similar pace. “A lot of it is just who wants it the most,” the strategist says, explaining that Kasich, faced with poor fundraising numbers in the face of George W. Bush’s rise, exited the 2000 race before the Iowa Straw Poll.

And even if he gives it his all, most observers believe the Ohio governor is in for an uphill fight.

“Yesterday,” Madden says, when asked when Kasich should officially declare a presidential campaign. “Hiring talent, recruiting key activists in states, building the network, building the infrastructure that you’re going to need to compete and win. You needed to be there yesterday.”

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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