WEST CHESTER, Ohio—Late last month, the Butler County Republican Party unveiled Rick Santorum, the presidential-candidate-turned-Marco-Rubio-surrogate, as the headline speaker for its annual Lincoln Day dinner here. Organizers were expecting record attendance, and not just because the event would take place three days before the Ohio primary. The party was also set to honor former House Speaker John Boehner at his first major public appearance since his retirement.
Once he heard the announcement, Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges called Todd Hall, chairman of the Butler County GOP, which hasn’t made an endorsement in the White House race, to tell him he planned to counter by using some of his allotted speaking time at the event to promote John Kasich. Santorum ultimately backed out at the last minute to campaign for Rubio in Florida, so Borges tried to follow Hall’s request “to go easy a little bit on the pro-Kasich stuff” Saturday night. “I’m just going to spend the next 20 minutes telling you why I support John Kasich for president,” Borges joked.
Borges didn’t use a full 20 minutes, and he didn’t need to. Former Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a staunch Kasich supporter, replaced Santorum at the fundraising dinner. Attorney General Mike DeWine told the well-heeled audience that it was “no secret” he was backing Kasich. And Boehner, breaking his silence on the presidential race, said he already voted for his “close friend” Kasich.
No presidential candidate has quite enjoyed home-field advantage like Kasich has in 2016. While the Texas and Florida Republican parties remained neutral even with favorite sons Ted Cruz and Rubio running, the Ohio GOP has thrown its full weight behind the home-state governor. The party’s state central committee took the unusual step to endorse Kasich earlier this year, and since then, local officials and activists have made phone calls, knocked on doors, encouraged early voting, and spoke at local functions to help elect Kasich.
“It’s like a mini-gubernatorial campaign going on over the last month or so, and we’ve been proud to be the ones to spearhead it,” Borges said.
Kasich, who has two statewide victories in Ohio under his belt, needs all the help he can get to pull off a third. Public polls show he is locked in a tight race with Donald Trump ahead of Tuesday’s winner-take-all primary that could be the last stand not just for the governor, but also the anti-Trump forces hoping to prevent the bombastic celebrity from winning the Republican nomination.
As Kasich and his rivals focused on other states over the past few months, the Ohio Republican Party was laying the groundwork for Tuesday’s primary. The party has worked in tandem with the cash-strapped Kasich campaign and other candidates up and down the ballot, including Sen. Rob Portman, to distribute pro-Kasich pamphlets and yard signs.
They made their biggest push yet this weekend: Borges said he hoped to have close to 1,000 volunteers across the state knocking on doors of Republican and unaffiliated voters. On top of that, the super PAC New Day for America has 30 paid staffers across eight offices dedicated to get-out-the vote efforts, according to spokeswoman Connie Wehrkamp. Meanwhile, the other campaigns don’t have much of a ground operation to speak of in Ohio.
“All you can do is hope for the best and work and wear out your shoes out here,” said Dennis Damon, a 63-year old Columbus Republican activist who knocked on doors for Kasich this weekend.
Kasich had plenty of local party leaders to talk up his credentials at each of the eight stops he made in Ohio over the past three days. But the state GOP also made an effort to place a Kasich surrogate on the speaker’s list for each of the roughly 30 Lincoln Day dinners around the state leading up to the primary. Aside from a handful of Trump postcards and bumper stickers, none of the other campaigns had a presence at the Butler County event on Saturday.
In addition, the Ohio GOP sent a slate card featuring names of all of its endorsed candidates, with Kasich at the front of the list, to any voter who requested a Republican absentee ballot. As of Tuesday, 168,000 Republican absentee ballots had been requested in Ohio, 84,000 of which were cast, according to the secretary of state’s office.
“His people know him. He doesn’t have to reeducate them,” said David Myhal, a Columbus-based GOP lobbyist. “He just has to get bodies to the polls.”
Kasich, however, didn’t always have a strong relationship with the state party. Kevin DeWine resigned as party chairman in 2012 after a long-simmering feud with the governor. Kasich had recruited a slate of new members for the state central committee, which elected Borges in 2013. Now, Kasich’s presidential bid has support from nearly every top Republican elected official and party official. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who endorsed Rubio, is the one notable exception.
And Kasich’s prominent backers aren’t just speaking at fancy dinners. The state’s auditor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and Senate president, to name a few, have all done the traditional volunteer work of knocking on doors and making phone calls for Kasich. Some even ventured to New Hampshire and Michigan earlier in the race to help out.
“There’s no job too small for any member of our state party or local party,” Cuyahoga County Republican Party chairman Rob Frost said.
On Friday, Rubio suggested that voters in Ohio who want to stop Trump should vote for Kasich, underscoring that it’s a two-man race for the state’s 66 delegates. And the real-estate mogul has thrived so far even without high-level endorsements or a formidable ground game. More than anything, Kasich is banking on a sense of hometown pride to deliver his first victory of the 2016 race—and keep his underdog campaign alive.
“Having someone from your state run for president,” Rep. Pat Tiberi said at a town hall in Heath, Ohio, “it’s pretty awesome.”