For a party that's accustomed to nominating the next-in-line presidential candidate, 2016 promises to be a very unusual year for the Republican Party. For the first time in decades, the GOP has no clear front-runner or even an establishment favorite at this early stage.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looked poised to fill that role, but his home-state scandals are endangering any national bid before it even gets underway. Jeb Bush would be an obvious contender, but Republican officials are skeptical he'd jump into the ring—all too cognizant of the baggage his last name brings. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker might be able to transcend the gap between the tea party and the establishment, but he still faces a challenging reelection back home. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida lost some cachet after his high-profile advocacy of immigration reform foundered.
But there's one candidate who isn't generating much buzz and whose résumé compares favorably with any of the top-tier candidates. He's a battleground-state governor who's looking in strong position to win a second term. He defeated one of the more popular Democratic governors in the country, who happened to be a major Clinton ally. He's from the Midwest, likely to be the critical region in the 2016 presidential election. He entered office as a prominent fiscal conservative but compromised on Medicaid expansion. And most important, Republican officials familiar with his thinking say he's seriously considering a presidential campaign.
Enter Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the swing-state executive who's currently polling at microscopic levels nationally but who could have an outsized impact on the 2016 race.
"The presidential nominee is likely to be a governor, and, frankly, Kasich is as well situated as anybody. This is a guy who can connect with a crowd, he can emote, he's got blue-collar roots, and he identifies with average folks. He's certainly no Romney," said former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis, who served with Kasich in Congress. "In my opinion, he's the total package. And I think he's interested."
By all accounts, Kasich shouldn't be considered a sleeper. As governor, he's presided over a Rust Belt renaissance, with the state's unemployment rate dropping from one of the highest in the country in 2009 (10.6 percent) to around the national average (7.2 percent) last month. In 2013, Kasich signed a sizable tax cut thanks to the state's newfound budget surplus. Kasich was among the first Republicans to tout the party's need to reach out to the disadvantaged, and he lived up to his rhetoric by passing prison-sentencing reform with support from African-American legislators.
He ran for president before in 2000, parlaying his role passing four balanced budgets with Bill Clinton as a main selling point of the campaign. In effect, he was Paul Ryan before Ryan was elected to Congress. But he barely made a dent in a year when George W. Bush secured early support from party leaders.
"Mitt Romney's biggest problem was the perception he didn't care—that's a Republican Achilles' heel almost built into the party," said former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. "It would be constructive to have a candidate who could diminish that gap because they're cut from a different cloth, they have a proven track record of helping the poor and middle-class, and their policies show it. For people like John Kasich, he feels it as a social calling. That has the potential to be attractive so long as it's matched with conservative ideology."
Indeed, Kasich's governing message in Ohio sounds awfully similar to the "compassionate conservative" brand that Bush himself employed so successfully in 2000. Last August, Kasich told The Wall Street Journal: "I have a chance to show what it means to be successful economically, but also to have a compassionate side, a caring side, to help lift people up."
Kasich's narrow gubernatorial victory in 2010 was also notable for the coalition he built to victory: He was one of the rare Republican candidates who performed better with upscale voters than the working-class whites who make up the GOP's base. Among college-educated whites, Kasich won a remarkable 63 percent of the vote, while noncollege whites backed him with 54 percent. Democrats attacked him for his wealth and his role as managing director for Lehman Brothers before the recession, but the populist attacks backfired among the state's managerial class. Like Christie, Kasich could be well-positioned to win a second term by racking up unusually high support from traditionally Democratic constituencies. A November Quinnipiac survey showed his job-approval rating at a healthy 52 percent, with the governor winning top marks from 32 percent of Democrats, 33 percent of African-Americans, and 49 percent of young (18-29) voters. He's maintained his appeal with college-educated Ohioans, with 55 percent approving.
"He's reached out to the African-American community, and has promoted a few issues the black community cares about—like Medicaid [expansion] and the prison issue," said Columbus mayor Michael Coleman, a Democrat. "The question becomes are they going to come out for his opponent. His opponent will have to work the black community and show support for issues that the black community supports."
This year, Kasich will be facing a well-regarded Democratic opponent—Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald—and he's far from a shoo-in. But a resounding second-term victory would be more impressive than Christie's landslide win, given that he's facing a challenger who's getting support and financial help from the national party.
To be sure, Kasich has his vulnerabilities with the base. He'd be one of the few Republican governors to embrace Medicaid expansion in his home state, a sticking point for many conservatives. After unsuccessfully trying to limit collective-bargaining rights, he's smoothed over relations with unions. As a congressman, he backed the Clinton assault-weapons ban in the 1990s, even though he now believes it wasn't very effective.
Some skeptics view Kasich as too undisciplined for the rigor of a presidential campaign. There's a boatload of footage for opposition researchers to pore through, from when he guest-hosted The O'Reilly Factor and hosted his own weekend show on Fox News a decade ago.
But he's also got a tailor-made narrative for a presidential campaign: He's an economic turnaround specialist who helped balance four budgets in Congress and turned around his state's struggling fiscal situation in three years. Christie received outsized national attention governing next to the media capital of the world, but Ohio is a more populous, electorally-significant state.
"Kasich holds the coalition together," Davis said. "You take a look at the states in play, and Ohio is a must. No Republican has been elected president without winning Ohio."
This article appears in the February 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Case for Kasich.