Greenville, Ohio — Have you heard that John Kasich’s dad was a mailman? If not, then you’ve probably never been around Ohio’s Republican governor. “My father carried mail on his back for 29 years,” he says on March 14, at a Whirlpool factory here. Kasich abandons a podium, descends from a platform, and walks into a seated crowd of about 400 workers. “Growing up the way I did, I’m really one of you,” he says to them.
That’s the idea Kasich wants to convey: He’s just a regular guy — a blue-collar kid from a little town near Pittsburgh called McKees Rocks. He might be working the day shift too, except for the fact that he spent nearly two decades in Congress, made a small fortune with Lehman Brothers, and hosted a television show, all before becoming the governor of a big state in the industrial Midwest.
If Kasich had a dollar for every time he mentioned his father’s job, he might be able to retire with the equivalent of a generous postal-service pension. The references have been a staple of his public addresses and interviews for years — and they’re the type of thing Mitt Romney could not say about himself in 2012, as he tried to connect with working-class voters in Ohio and elsewhere during his doomed presidential bid.
Kasich has more than a personal story to share: He also has a track record as governor, parts of which are really good. He came into office in 2011 and confronted a busted budget. Since then, he has turned a deficit into a surplus even as he has lowered income-tax rates and wiped out the state’s death tax entirely. The national economy may be sluggish, but Ohio has turned heads with its job creation. In January, only Texas generated more employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s why Kasich has come to Greenville, where Whirlpool plans to expand its KitchenAid small-appliance factory, adding about 400 jobs over the next four years. Kasich wants everyone to know that it might not have happened without him. “We’re rebuilding the state,” he says over lunch at a Bob Evans restaurant, after his appearance.
So why does virtually no presidential buzz surround Ohio’s governor? Kasich’s résumé looks just about perfect for a Republican. He’s the tax-cutting, jobs-growing, pro-life chief executive of a swing state that could represent the difference between victory and defeat for a GOP nominee. He’s also a proven winner. Since his first run for public office in 1978, Kasich never has lost an election — he’s eleven for eleven — and a few of his races have involved tough and scrappy triumphs that lesser candidates might not have pulled off. He answers questions about 2016 with appropriate demurrals: “I have no interest in running for president,” he says. At the very least, his response at this early point in the presidential cycle shows that he’s not too eager to get out of Columbus, while he still has a reelection to win in November. And have you heard that his dad was a mailman?
The 61-year-old Kasich (rhymes with “basic”) became an Ohioan in 1970, when he left Pennsylvania for Ohio State University. “I was a Pirates fan,” he says, referring to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team. “We used to say ‘Go Bucs!’” — short for “buccaneers” — “and at first I thought everyone at Ohio State was a Pirates fan because they say ‘Go Bucks!’” As Kasich soon realized, however, they were referring to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
A few weeks after arriving on campus, Kasich learned that OSU’s president, Novice Fawcett, had an appointment with President Nixon. Kasich asked Fawcett to deliver a letter to Nixon. It outlined a few of Kasich’s political concerns and concluded this way: “P.S. If you’d like to discuss this letter further, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll make myself available.” Nixon wrote back and invited Kasich to the White House. They met for 20 minutes. A photo shows a mop-headed Kasich shaking the hand of a grinning Nixon. “I would go on to spend eighteen years in Congress, and if you go back and add up all the time I spent alone in the Oval Office with various presidents, you’ll see it doesn’t come close to those twenty minutes,” wrote Kasich in Stand for Something, his 2006 book.
Four years after the encounter with Nixon, Kasich found himself working for a legislator in Columbus — and in 1978, at the age of 26, he challenged a Democratic state senator in a district just north of the capital. Kasich outhustled the incumbent and won. In 1982, he set his sights higher, taking on Democratic congressman Bob Shamansky. This was the first midterm election of the Reagan presidency, and a lousy year to run as a Republican. Yet Kasich prevailed, becoming the only non-incumbent GOP candidate to win a seat in the House that year.
In Congress, Kasich was a Republican reformer who allied himself with Newt Gingrich. He joined the Budget Committee, and Gingrich promoted him ahead of other Republicans with more seniority. Kasich rose to chairman after the GOP sweep of 1994 and took part in the ensuing Clinton–Gingrich budget battles, including the federal-government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. Throughout these ordeals, Kasich warned about overspending and deficits. “He was the Paul Ryan of a generation ago,” says Ralph Reed, who headed the Christian Coalition at the time and is now a GOP political consultant. “Ryan is Kasich 2.0.” In Clinton’s second term, the federal budget moved from red to black, and Kasich deserves a share of the credit.
Kasich also earned a reputation for combativeness, and not just because he clashed with Clinton. He irritated defense hawks by joining Ron Dellums, a left-wing congressman from California, in fighting the B-2 bomber. He angered gun-rights advocates by supporting Clinton’s assault-weapons ban. The National Rifle Association gave him a grade of “F.” He once tried to walk onstage during a Grateful Dead concert at RFK Stadium in Washington, only to get into an argument with the band’s tour manager that grew so heated it made the papers. Former congresswoman Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican, once told the Los Angeles Times that when she saw Kasich board her flight from D.C. to Columbus, she pretended to sleep. “Do you know what it’s like to be trapped on an airplane next to John Kasich?” she asked. “Sitting next to all that intensity, after being around all week? It’s a good thing it’s just an hour flight.”
In 1999, Kasich decided to run for president, touting his résumé as a budget-balancing conservative from the American heartland (whose dad was a mailman). His campaign lasted just five months, sputtering out before it even advanced beyond the “exploratory” phase. Yet Kasich seemed to interpret the result as a temporary setback rather than a permanent defeat. “I would actually like to be president one day,” he said the next year, as he prepared to retire from Congress. He went on to earn millions at Lehman Brothers, host a weekly show on Fox News, and raise a family with his young wife.
Then, after a decade out of politics, Kasich jumped back in. He announced a run for governor against Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland, who probably couldn’t believe his luck: What liberal wouldn’t want to face the former partner of an investment company whose bankruptcy had contributed to the recent financial crisis? “John Kasich is the son of a mailman and I’m the son of a steelworker,” said Strickland. “That’s where the similarity ends, because I never forgot where I came from and I think John Kasich did.” Yet 2010 was an outstanding year for Republicans, and Kasich nipped Strickland by two percentage points — a mere 77,000 votes in a state of more than 11 million people.
Upon taking office, Kasich plugged an $8 billion budget hole and cut taxes. He also tried to pare back union power, signing a bill to restrict collective-bargaining rights, much as Governor Scott Walker did in Wisconsin around the same time and as Republican governors in Indiana and Michigan would go on to do. Yet Kasich ultimately would fail: That November, voters repealed the anti-union law by a wide margin, 62 percent to 38 percent. Kasich doesn’t want to talk much about it now: “People said they didn’t want it. That’s okay. We put it out there. We’ve had a lot of wins.” The loss was bigger than he lets on, and Kasich’s approval rating tanked. Less than a year into his governorship, he looked like a possible one-termer.
Yet Ohio’s economic rebound was already under way. Since Kasich’s inauguration, the state has ranked fifth in the nation in job growth. In February, its unemployment rate slipped to its lowest level since 2008. Meanwhile, Kasich has approved $3 billion in tax cuts. “I’m going to drive them lower and lower down,” he says. If a proposal he unveiled on March 11 becomes law, he will have succeeded in slashing Ohio’s top marginal rate by nearly 18 percent. He also has expanded school choice and increased oversight of abortion clinics. Even on guns, which have caused him headaches in the past, Kasich has earned praise for signing pro-gun legislation: “As governor, he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” says Jim Irvine of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “We’re really happy with him.” In February, 51 percent of registered voters approved of his performance, in a Quinnipiac University poll.
Last year, however, Kasich infuriated his conservative base when he pushed to add 275,000 people to Ohio’s Medicaid rolls in what the New York Times described as a “half-embrace” of Obamacare. The substance of the policy was bad enough: After three years, the federal government’s promise to pay the state’s full bill for expansion ends, leaving Ohio with a potentially enormous new budget obligation. “The bribe money is tremendous, with the goodies on the front end and the pain coming later,” says Robert Alt, president of the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank in Columbus. What’s more, the extra spending may not help the people who are supposed to benefit, as Medicaid patients often suffer worse health outcomes than people with no insurance at all.
Among the country’s 30 Republican governors, Kasich is in a distinct minority. Only six others have struck similar deals. Most of the rest have resisted this encroachment of Obamacare. So have the majority of Republicans in Columbus. The state legislature, in fact, specifically prohibited Medicaid expansion in last year’s budget. Kasich deleted the restriction with his line-item veto and pushed the measure through an obscure panel called the Controlling Board. Conservatives were livid. “The Controlling Board has usurped the constitutional power of the General Assembly to appropriate and spend the people’s money,” said state representative Ron Young.
To make matters worse, Kasich turned sanctimonious, insisting that it was his duty as a Christian to expand Medicaid. “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,” said Kasich, according to the Dayton Daily News. “But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.” He has used language like this repeatedly, as well as the rhetoric of class warfare. “I’m concerned about the fact that there seems to be a war on the poor,” he told the New York Times last October. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.” This prompted the Times to comment that Kasich “occasionally sounds more like an heir to Lyndon B. Johnson than to Ronald Reagan.”
There’s no question that Kasich is a man of faith. He grew up Catholic, drifted away from the Church, and rediscovered religion following the death of his parents in a 1987 car accident. He now attends an Episcopalian church. His 2010 book Every Other Monday describes his long-running participation in a biweekly Bible-study group. “There comes a time in everyone’s life when things get a little tough, and how we respond to these moments of crisis says a whole lot about our character and our worldview,” he writes in the book’s first sentence.
So what does his response to the critics of Medicaid expansion say about Kasich? Does he even recognize that invoking Saint Peter in a debate with conservative skeptics has rubbed some people the wrong way? “Did it?” he asks, facetiously. “I think it rubbed a lot of people the right way.” He continues: “A large part of my internal value system derives from the most popular books, the Old and New Testaments. It’s all pretty clear. We as human beings have an obligation to help people.” And so Medicaid expansion is a Christian duty? “I’m not going to respond to critics. I’m just telling you how I see it.” What does he think of Obamacare generally? “I fought Hillarycare when I was in Washington and this is Hillarycare redux,” he says. “If I were president — which I’m not going to be — I would repeal Obamacare and replace it.”
In his reelection contest this November, Kasich most likely will face Ed FitzGerald, the Democratic executive from Cuyahoga County. Statewide races in Ohio are rarely easy for anyone, though most recent polls give Kasich a small but steady lead. If he wins, a few Republicans may talk about drafting a presidential candidate who has proven that he can carry Ohio — or, more likely, they’ll discuss Kasich as an excellent running mate. As that happens, conservatives will want to ask a key question: Exactly what would this son of a mailman deliver?