The Republican Presidential Contender Everyone’s Overlooking

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is serious about running for president, and he’d be a formidable candidate.

US Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (2nd L) waves alongside Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman (L) and Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) during a campaign stop at Tom's Ice Cream Bowl in Zanesville, Ohio, on August 14, 2012.
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 29, 2014, midnight

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.”