Politics & Policy

Will Kasich Be the Decider?

Kasich campaigns in Strongville, Ohio, March 13, 2016. (Jeff Swensen/Getty)
The Ohio governor showed staying power, winning enough delegates to help decide the nomination.

If, six months ago, you had told even the most casual political observer that John Kasich would outlast Marco Rubio on the campaign trail, he would have looked at you like you had three heads. And yet he has done just that. Rubio dropped out of the race after losing his home state of Florida to Trump on Tuesday, while Kasich emerged victorious in Ohio. Confetti poured from the ceiling as he celebrated his first victory of the campaign season. 

Coming into tonight, Kasich had won just 63 delegates; it is mathematically impossible for him to amass the 1,237 necessary to become the GOP nominee before the convention, something Kasich acknowledged in his victory speech. “We are going to go all the way to Cleveland and secure the Republican nomination,” he told his supporters Tuesday evening, referring to a fight for the nomination at an open convention this summer assuming that none of the candidates secures a majority of the delegates up for grabs before then.

Thanks to Kasich’s victory in Ohio, that scenario looks increasingly likely. And by denying Trump Ohio’s 66 delegates, Kasich has made himself a key player in the 2016 race. He now has the potential to deprive both Trump and Ted Cruz, who currently sits in second place, of a significant number of delegates in the Northeastern and Midwestern states that have yet to vote, and to stay in the race to duke it out on the floor of the convention, just as he suggested. 

RELATED: Kasich’s Path to the Nomination

How did he pull it off?

Almost exactly a year ago, Kasich walked out of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City and left a room of conservative donors, intellectuals, and journalists in disbelief. The notoriously cantankerous Ohio governor hadn’t been able to prevent himself from tangling with one of the invited guests. During the dinner discussion, the health-care-policy wonk Avik Roy pressed him on his controversial decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio. Kasich replied tartly, “Maybe you think we should put [the poor] in prison. I don’t.”

After Kasich left, a number of those present wondered at his defiance, his imprudence, his inability to read a crowd. The verdict was nearly unanimous: As a presidential candidate — running for the Republican nomination, anyway — he was dead in the water.

Kasich was never likely to be the Republican nominee. He is anti-establishment, having always been politically heterodox, but he also is also a seasoned politician, having spent 18 years in Congress before serving two terms as governor. That’s a combination that left him without a natural constituency in 2016: Those looking for an outsider had options like Cruz and Ben Carson, while those who preferred an establishment candidate with political experience mostly chose Jeb Bush.

But Kasich clearly understood a few things about surviving the turbulent environment of the 2016 Republican primary before the conservative glitterati had begun to grapple with them: First, that defying the ideological orthodoxies of the conservative movement wouldn’t be disqualifying; second, that hewing to a simple strategy in a fragmented field would allow him to advance farther than most people believed; and finally, that in a year where unprecedented events are unfolding, winning his home state might be enough to take the fight all the way to the convention.

Kasich has also gotten lucky. Start with his 2014 romp to reelection. Much was made of his big victory – he won by a 30-point margin – but he also faced an opponent who self-destructed when he was caught in a car in the wee hours of the morning, without a driver’s license, with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

Kasich’s presidential campaign was dependent on a strong showing in New Hampshire, and he got lucky there too. “I think everybody around him knew that he was going to have to get a few breaks along the way for him to have an opportunity when the calendar turned his way,” says Dave Yost, the Ohio state auditor, who has endorsed Kasich.

Kasich has won every one of the 11 political races in which he’s been a candidate – he is a formidable political contender.

The governor made more appearances in New Hampshire — over 100 — than any other candidate, and yet it was Marco Rubio who was on track to finish second there before a disastrous debate performance days before the February 9 primary, which reversed his momentum and allowed Kasich to scoot into position. “Your governor Kasich, if you look at him – and I’m being totally impartial – he goes to New Hampshire, he’s living in New Hampshire,” Trump told Ohio voters on Monday. “Even more than Chris Christie, he was there.”

Trump wasn’t wrong, but Kasich also proved himself able to take advantage of the moment in a way that candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie were not. Kasich has won every one of the 11 political races in which he’s been a candidate – he is a formidable political contender. In 2016, he’s perhaps the only candidate aside from Donald Trump who entered the race with a strategy and stuck to it, and certainly the only candidate who has not appeared to be buffeted by Trump’s bluster.

Ted Cruz searched long a hard for an effective way to attack Trump in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, veering from one hit to another and leaving even ardent supporters concerned he was going to blow it. “It is such a target-rich environment, you have to be careful you don’t attack him from the right with buckshot,” the conservative radio talk-show host Steve Deace, who has endorsed Cruz, told me days before the caucuses. “Because if you’re opening up a new front — it’s eminent domain one day and New York values another day — people get confused. You have to stick to one thing.” Cruz, he said, hadn’t been doing that. Marco Rubio abruptly changed course after the Nevada caucuses, leaving onlookers both shocked and amused as he mocked Trump and made crude jokes, only to apologize days later for abandoning the rhetoric of optimism and uplift that had defined his campaign.

Kasich, meanwhile, having committed to running a positive campaign, has been steady as she goes. While Trump’s rallies have been interrupted by fistfights, he has paused during town halls to spontaneously embrace attendees. Another, more important side effect of Kasich’s positivity is that Trump has largely ignored him even as he has savaged “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco.”

Kasich’s optimism may have frustrated the media, which has virtually begged candidates to play in the gutter, but he has defied the existing characterization of himself as an undisciplined hothead whose temper would get the best of him on the campaign trail.

#share#The stories about Kasich’s prickly personality are legendary: the time he dismissed a reporter’s question as “stupid,” the time he raised his voice to tell a donor at a Koch brothers’ conference just how wrong she was, the time he instructed a constituent to “learn a little diplomacy” before writing any other members of Congress.

Before he jumped into the race in late July, many assumed a moment like that would prove his undoing. “He’s got personality issues that are problematic, and I’ve told him that he can come across as abrasive and self-righteous,” says Steve Moore, the co-founder of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, who worked as a staffer for Kasich on the House Budget Committee in the 1990s. And yet Kasich has kept those “personality issues” entirely under wraps on the campaign trail, even in the face of Donald Trump’s provocations.

RELATED: The Kasich Hug — That Went to a Kasich Super PAC Volunteer

“I wanted to raise the bar in presidential politics,” he said at last week’s Republican debate in Miami. “You know, sometimes being positive isn’t all that interesting, but it’s very interesting to my family and my children and so many supporters that I meet all across the country and I will continue to run a positive campaign.”

That may not be a great fit for this political moment, but other aspects of his campaign are well suited to the times. Heading into the all-important Ohio primary, Kasich got a shot of the celebrity juice that has proved critical in a campaign dominated by a reality-television star. On March 6, he descended from his campaign bus in Columbus, Ohio, with former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had endorsed him earlier that day.

Throughout his career, Kasich has always been more populist than conservative, somebody who says he’ll stick up for the average guy against the elites.

In a speech perfectly keyed to the 2016 campaign season, Schwarzenegger talked very little about politics, and a lot about his celebrity. He told the crowd that he loves Ohio because he holds the bodybuilding world championships there. “I just came from ‘der because dis veekend is de Arnold Classic Sports and Fitness Festival,” he said as Kasich looked on, beaming. “It has grown now to da biggest event in da vorld, 200,000 people are going tru ‘der and vatching dose events. Ve have 56 different sports and ve have 20,000 athletes pahticipating. Tink about dat: De Olympics have 12,000 athletes pahticipating, ve have 20,000.” Donald Trump couldn’t have said it better himself.

Turning his attention to Kasich, Schwarzenegger complimented him for going to Washington and kicking “some serious butt,” producing the first balanced budget “since da first man walked on da moon. Tink about dat.” Then it was Kasich’s turn to laud Schwarzenegger. “I don’t know how much you really know about Arnold,” he said. “He’s gonna be on this new, great, show, the Celebrity Apprentice, he filmed a new Terminator, and by the way, he’s taken the Arnold Classic global.”

See, Kasich can play Trump’s game too. As Trump has blasted him for supporting NAFTA, Kasich has told voters he understands their concern “that some crazy trade deal will somehow hit ’em up the backside of the head and somebody’ll walk in and say, ‘You’re out of work.’” Throughout his career, Kasich has always been more populist than conservative, somebody who says he’ll stick up for the average guy against the elites. And unlike Ted Cruz and many other conservatives, he considers the elites not just Washington liberals, but all those who enjoy the privileges that most people don’t.

#related#Turns out there may be a small but nonetheless big enough market for Kasich’s brand of populism this year. Just weeks ago, political onlookers were marveling at Rubio’s ability to play the expectations game, but it’s actually Kasich who has quietly defied the expectations of the political smart set. In a field that has remained fractured, much to the chagrin of many party elites, Kasich’s popularity in Ohio may be all that matters in securing him a decisive role in the outcome of this race.

Keith Faber, the state-senate president, who has endorsed Kasich, says that when the governor initially briefed him on his ambitious agenda in 2010, he told Kasich, “If you are actually going to do those things, after the first two years, they are going to burn you in effigy . . . but after the second two years, they are going to knight you as a hero.” For all that Kasich has infuriated the Republican establishment, the same may be true if he helps keep the nomination from Donald Trump.

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