Politics & Policy

Kasich’s Squishy Svengali

The Ohio governor and presidential hopeful is reportedly talking to a strategist who disdains those on the right.

Ohio governor John Kasich has yet to enter the presidential race, but his reported talks with Republican strategist John Weaver, even before the Washington Post reported Tuesday that he would serve as a senior strategist for the campaign, were already raising some eyebrows.

Weaver, a chief strategist for John Huntsman in 2012 and an advisor to John McCain in both 2000 and 2008, has made little attempt to hide his less-than-positive feelings toward certain conservative elements of the GOP. And he’s never been shy about criticizing the Republican party as a whole. Hiring Weaver in and of itself could turn off some more conservative GOP operatives and activists. And to some Republicans, it also telegraphs a potential campaign strategy — past campaigns run by Weaver have bypassed the Iowa caucuses and headed straight to New Hampshire, a path that irks some early-state operatives.

“I think for those in the know, it probably makes them scratch their head,” said one Republican consultant.

Though most voters pay no attention whatsoever to a candidate’s consultant, for the operatives, activists, and state-level officials whose support campaigns court each cycle, the staffing choice could be salient.

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“Perception is reality,” said one Iowa political consultant. “If that’s his first hire, then yeah. It’s not going to speak well, and news of that will spread quickly” from people who are familiar with his record of skipping the Hawkeye State.

Recent presidential campaigns Weaver has advised have been unsuccessful. In 2012, Huntsman ended his bid a week after winning a distant third place in the New Hampshire primary, the contest on which he, and Weaver, had staked his candidacy. The stories that emerged from that campaign were hardly flattering to the strategist. In August of 2011, Politico cited several sources who had left the fledgling Huntsman campaign calling Weaver “verbally abusive,” mean, and essentially a dysfunctional force in the campaign.

Weaver was forced out of the second McCain campaign in 2007. McCain operatives who stayed on later accused him of being the source of a New York Times story implying that McCain had had an extramarital affair.

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“John has the reputation he does because trouble, either he brings it, or it follows him around,” said the Republican operative. (Weaver, reached by email, said he was unavailable to comment by time of publication.)

Ohio Republican-party communications director Chris Schrimpf, who is handling Kasich’s political media, said Kasich’s team had been impressed with Weaver’s creativity and experience, and singled out the work Weaver did for Michigan governor Rick Snyder, who won a tough reelection fight in 2014 in a purple state with a similar makeup to Ohio.

“John Weaver brings a lot of national experience to the campaign, he has been through this before, as has Fred Davis,” who confirmed Tuesday night that he would be doing media for the campaign, as first reported by Bloomberg.  “That was something that the governor found helpful. But, you know, the governor is his own man, he takes the positions of what he thinks is best for the nation or for Ohio, and so John Weaver will not impact that governor’s message to Republican voters or independent voters, just as Fred Davis is not creating the governor’s policy.”

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Weaver can dish it out as good as he gets it. “There’s a simple reason our party is nowhere near being a national governing party,” Weaver told Esquire in 2011. “No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.”

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Weaver broke with the Republican party and spent several years working for Democrats. He came back when McCain mounted another bid for the presidency in 2007.

Still, Weaver has not been shy in expressing disdain for certain elements within his party — often attacking positions held by many of the activists who hold large sway in the Iowa caucuses.

RELATED: Kasich Turns Off Supply Siders in New York City

The distaste is mutual in some parts. The knowledge of how Weaver has chosen to run previous Republican campaigns is still fresh in the minds of Iowa Republican consultants. “I bristled when I heard it,” said the Iowa Republican consultant of the fact that Kasich was talking to Weaver.

Weaver has not been shy in expressing disdain for certain elements within his party — often attacking positions held by many of the activists who hold large sway in the Iowa caucuses.

“It sends the wrong signal. You may see the bat signal in the sky, and you may not know where Batman’s going but you know there’s trouble somewhere. And this would just be a giant bat signal that he’s not going to aggressively compete in Iowa,” the consultant added.

But a source close to the Kasich campaign said that would not be the case this time — “They are absolutely not skipping Iowa,” the source said.

In a Tuesday-night phone call, Davis noted that both the Huntsman and the McCain 2008 campaigns were hamstrung by limited funds. On skipping Iowa, he said, “I think it’s more a question of resources.”

Kasich, like Weaver, has both detractors and admirers. The Ohio governor is known for a rather prickly personality —  happy one moment, and berating a voter the next. There’s an “off-putting authenticity” to him, as one Republican operative put it. 

Some Republicans see him as someone who could join the top tier of candidates if he gets in. But, like Weaver, Kasich’s record as governor has already left some conservatives skeptical. Most notably, his decision in 2013 to accept $2.5 billion in funding from the federal government to expand Medicaid, providing coverage for 275,000 more Ohioans, has rubbed many conservatives the wrong way. He made the decision in opposition to the Republican-controlled state legislature, and the fact that the funding came as a result of Obamacare, irks many Republicans.

What’s more, some conservatives have taken umbrage with Kasich’s justifications of that action. “Now, 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 is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer,” Kasich said in 2013. That comment and other similar ones couching the move in his religious beliefs reportedly prompted a heated confrontation with two other Republican governors, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.

#related#Kasich has also been unapologetically in favor of Common Core education standards, which, though designed by Republican governors, are reviled by many conservatives.

As a member of the House of Representatives for 18 years, Kasich was known for his intense fiscal conservatism, writing budgets that greatly trimmed federal spending. But voters have short memories, and his more recent actions as Ohio governor are likely to draw more attention.

If Kasich does enter the race, he will have to cram a lot of campaigning into a short period of time. Ohio Republicans expect a Kasich campaign could launch in early July, after the legislature clears a budget, which is due by June 30. That would leave Kasich just over a month to increase his name recognition enough to get on the stage at the first debate on August 6, hosted by Fox News. Only the top ten presidential hopefuls in the national polls will earn a spot on the stage, and for Kasich, the stakes are higher: The debate is being held on his home turf, in Cleveland.

But Kasich may have some competition for the limelight once he announces. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, another unannounced candidate who looks almost certain to run, is also waiting on his state legislature to finalize a budget by June 30. He, too, has said he will officially announce a decision in early July.

— Alexis Levinson is a senior political reporter at National Review.

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