Top Ohio Republicans launched a concerted campaign in recent weeks to enlist the help of perhaps the one man capable of bolstering their candidate’s appeal to moderates and helping stave off an embarrassing loss in Tuesday’s special congressional election: John Kasich.
With his party facing an enthusiasm gap and aggressive Democratic attempts to court centrist voters, the two-term governor made an eleventh-hour foray into the race for the 12th District, which he used to represent, after multiple entreaties from political allies and friends. He endorsed state Sen. Troy Balderson on July 26 and cut a TV ad on his behalf.
Those familiar with the governor’s thinking said he was initially turned off by some positions the candidate had taken during a contentious primary, in which he narrowly fended off a hard-line conservative rival by fewer than 800 votes. Kasich had openly questioned Balderson’s ability to be independent from the Trump administration.
The lobbying largely focused on the political ramifications of a loss, but Kasich allies insisted his decision to get involved was centered on what kind of representation Balderson would offer the district.
"I think he had very genuine concerns. John Kasich is a principled guy,” said Tom Davis, a former House campaign-arm chairman who spoke with his former colleague as he contemplated an endorsement. "He agonized over this. Should he stay out? What do you do in this situation?"
The effort involved Republican operatives in the state, members of the governor's political circle, and current and former congressmen, including Pat Tiberi, whose resignation triggered the special election, and Charlie Dent, who supported Kasich's 2016 presidential bid.
Rep. Steve Stivers, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee and represents a neighboring district, personally encouraged the governor and his team to endorse, according to a source familiar with their conversation.
The general appeal to Kasich: Balderson needs your help to win over swing voters, particularly suburban women disaffected with the president, and the party at large needs to avoid another special-election loss in a GOP-leaning district less than 100 days from the midterms in what’s been deemed a bellwether race. The governor ultimately met with Balderson and backed him soon after.
"We were hoping eventually he’d come around," said Bob Kish, a media consultant for Balderson. "I think the governor was being respectful of the process and wanted to see a little separation between Troy and Trump."
Though he initially balked when asked by the Columbus Dispatch for times he disagreed with the president, Balderson had broken with Trump on a few issues. Kasich noted those in his endorsement, praising their shared views on "trade, national security and ending family separation at the border."
The effort undertaken to procure Kasich’s endorsement underscores the thin line Balderson must tiptoe to win over both flanks of his party in a tumultuous political environment and an election that coincides with summer vacations. He faces a strong challenge from his Democratic opponent, Franklin County Recorder Danny O'Connor.
On the line is momentum heading into the final weeks and the potential for Democrats to knock the number of seats needed for a majority down to 22. It was enough for national Republicans to secure both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to campaign during the final week in an attempt to jolt turnout in the district’s solidly Republican areas.
Balderson's campaign is hoping for a strong showing in northern Delaware and the remaining rural counties. Trump is set to campaign on Saturday in Delaware, the home base of Balderson's primary rival, Melanie Leneghan, who has accused county officials of ballot-box fraud.
Some Republicans worry Leneghan's lingering crusade for a recount has dampened support among the party faithful. The Liberty Township trustee was backed by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is a House Freedom Caucus founding member.
Kasich should help with the rest of the base.
"Some people are unhappy because Troy had to tack so far to right to win the primary,"said a GOP source involved in drafting Kasich to endorse. Without the governor, "we didn't have our strongest advocate out there making the argument to the Republicans that we could not afford to lose.”
O’Connor has made a play for those voters by zeroing in on issues with broad support, such as protecting Social Security and Medicare, and revitalizing infrastructure—all aimed at independents and moderate Republicans aligned with the governor.
The swing voters are largely concentrated in southern Delaware County and O'Connor's home county of Franklin—two places where he'll need to run up the margins to eke out a victory.
Democrats are hopeful that Trump's visit to the district Saturday will undercut Balderson's attempts to keep those voters in the fold. A recent Monmouth University poll found Trump underwater in the district and O'Connor leading among independent voters by 16 points.
"Pat Tiberi, who is a good friend, always supported Governor Kasich," said Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty, who represents a Columbus-based district. "He never came out for Trump, and this gentleman is really strong with Trump. Maybe he needs to take a look at the district."
In the 2016 presidential primary, Kasich garnered 22,000 more votes than Trump in Delaware and 68,000 more in Franklin. Kasich, who still lives in the district, remains highly popular among the political center.
O'Connor has tried to capitalize on Kasich's favorables since the start of his campaign. An ad last month featured a Kasich supporter who plans to vote for O'Connor saying, "Both don’t worry about the labels of Democrat, Republican. They are going to get things done."
Balderson's attempts to unite conservatives in the more rural areas with moderates in the Columbus suburbs will likely need to be replicated by embattled Republicans across the country. It's a task that could prove difficult, especially in affluent suburban districts that are less Republican-leaning than Ohio's 12th and lack a ready-made messenger like Kasich to bring skeptical moderates onboard.
"He is the governor, he lives there, and he is the good housekeeping seal of approval for centrist voters," Davis said.