John Kasich’s White House bid was never supposed to go anywhere, given his great apostasy in the eyes of the Republican base: his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio under the Affordable Care Act.
But as evidence emerges that Obamacare is not the political flash point it once was, even among Republicans, Kasich is ascending as an increasingly credible challenger for the GOP presidential nomination.
The Ohio governor is running second to the indefatigable Donald Trump in New Hampshire, the early-nominating state where Kasich’s campaign has openly put almost all of its chips, per the latest Real Clear Politics polling average. He’s moved himself comfortably into the top 10 nationally after barely making the cut for the first debate.
Signs have existed for a while that the issue might not be the drag on Kasich that many thought it would be. In April, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that bringing down prescription drug costs was a top priority for more Republicans than repealing the health care law, 66 percent to 60 percent. This month, 72 percent of all Americans and a majority of Republicans said that prescription drug costs were unreasonably high. And, though it is one of the central pillars of Obamacare, polling has frequently found that more than half of Republicans support Medicaid expansion in isolation from the overall law.
Of course, Kasich isn’t about to start saying nice things about “Obamacare” because the law remains universally unpopular within the GOP, and his campaign isn’t publicly welcoming any apparent decline in the political passion about the law. From the start, Kasich has strained to distinguish between the whole law, individual mandate and all, and the particular provision that he implemented.
“I don’t think he looks at it that way because he opposes Obamacare,” said John Weaver, Kasich’s senior campaign strategist, in an interview. “Unfortunately, there are people who want to conflate the two.”
Spin aside, however, the fact remains that Medicaid expansion was authorized and funded as part of the ACA.
Kasich’s primary claim to momentum is New Hampshire, an eclectic state for conservatism and one that itself expanded Medicaid. Whether he can broaden his appeal beyond New England is far from certain. His national numbers have improved but are middling at best: 5 percent, according to Real Clear Politics. Most of the press coverage not sucked up by the summer of Trump has been positive toward Kasich and light on scrutiny so far, and he’s yet to attract any sustained attacks from his most prominent GOP rivals.
Those could be coming soon. Mike Murphy, who is heading the Right to Rise super PAC backing Jeb Bush, told The Columbus Dispatch last week that the group would soon start spending in Ohio and named Obamacare as one issue where they could seek to contrast Bush with Kasich.
“Normally, you don’t see these things until panic sets in, and panic has definitely set in. Panic has set in in about four or five campaigns,” Weaver said. “I know, because other campaigns have said so publicly, that they intend to maybe come at us on that, and I welcome that. That’s fine. What they chose to do in their states is their business. I don’t think you can get away with conflating Obamacare with expanding health care using your own tax dollars.”
Kasich has been honing his message on Medicaid expansion since before he hit the campaign trail. He usually describes it as a compassionate choice to help the poor, in the context of his Christian faith, and also as a fiscally responsible move that brought Ohio tax dollars back to the state. (Conservative wonks have argued that the money never would have been spent in the first place if Kasich didn’t expand the program).
It could also be that Obamacare simply hasn’t caught up with Kasich yet because he didn’t warrant much attention until recently. Other campaigns certainly haven’t forgotten about it, and they may turn to the issue as they aim to stymie Kasich’s rise and elevate their own candidates.
“In a race where there are so many candidates and there will be efforts by each campaign to differentiate itself from the others, the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare is sure to be an issue of discussion,” one Republican strategist advising several other candidates told National Journal recently. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the first tool out of the bag, but it is a potentially powerful one.”
But others within the Republican Party think the conventional wisdom overrated how much Medicaid expansion would be a problem for Kasich. In a bit of a twist, Trump could be helping Kasich out on that front, said John Feehery, a longtime GOP strategist who has spoken approvingly of Kasich’s campaign.
Buried beneath the billionaire’s bombastic rhetoric can be found, Feehery argues, a populist message that seems to be resonating with a lot of conservative voters and aligns in many ways with how Kasich sells Medicaid expansion.
“People misunderstand where the Republican Party is on a lot of issues. For example, on tax cuts for the rich, the Republican Party for many years said that we can’t raise taxes on rich people. Trump is saying ‘F—- that.’ It’s a message much more geared to the lower-middle class. People are struggling,” Feehery said. “Medicaid expansion helps people who are struggling. It might be something that people don’t like when it’s attached to Obama, but they want health care.”
Kasich’s team seems to see the race the same way. Weaver portrayed the governor’s message as “a positive version of that populism that Trump is espousing.”
“You have every reason and right to be angry, angry at your government, angry at your banks, angry at all sorts of institutions that we use to trust that we no longer can,” Weaver said. “But having said that, there are solutions to these issues and we can make things good again. It’s a more positive version of that message.”
Correction: This article originally misidentified Kasich’s Christian denomination. He was raised Catholic, but now belongs to a Protestant church.