Here’s one reason Ohio Gov. John Kasich is running for president, becoming the 16th Republican to do so: His home state has 18 electoral votes and is a must-win for anyone from his party who hopes to win the White House. Ohio, in fact, is known as a maker of presidents. Eight of America’s 44 presidents have been from Ohio, and the last person to win the presidency without winning Ohio was John F. Kennedy, in 1960.
Kasich, 63, is counting on that history and hoping it gives him an automatic leg up on other midtier candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination, thanks to his relatively strong approval rating there.
Kasich hopes Republican primary voters will factor his Ohio background into their calculations of which Republican is most likely to beat a Democrat. But it’s a strategy with a limited upside. The more obvious factor that likely primary voters will be considering is which Republican has the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and secretary of state and the likely Democratic nominee. On that question, Ohio’s role in the electoral college is less relevant than the qualities of individual candidates.
Nonetheless, the Ohio home-field advantage is a factor for Kasich. The governor’s spokesman, Chris Schrimpf, rattled through the others in a phone call with Yahoo News on Monday.
“The primary reason he’s running is because he thinks he has a unique experience among the rest of the field, in that he will actually be able to get things done if he gets elected,” Schrimpf said.
“If he chooses to run,” Schrimpf added, keeping up the fiction for one more day that Kasich was still in the process of deciding on a bid, since campaign finance laws prohibit politicians from raising or spending money for a presidential campaign until they’ve officially announced.
Kasich, Schrimpf said, “turned around a major state, which happens to be Ohio, which is really important.”
Kasich also, Schrimpf said, has national security experience from 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee — he served as congressman from 1983 to 2001 — and helped balance the federal budget during a time when the Republican-controlled House was working with Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Governor-elect Kasich in 2010 with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and House Speaker-designate John Boehner. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert/MCT via Getty)
“Some in the race can say they have national security strengths. Some can say they’ve run a state. None have done both and none have helped balance the federal budget,” Schrimpf said.
Kasich also combines a tendency to be a maverick on policy with a charismatic, sometimes volatile personality. He decided to accept the Medicaid expansion in President Obama’s 2010 health care law — which many Republican governors refused — angering many conservatives. He then doubled down on the decision when questioned about it by Randy Kendrick — the wife of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick — at a meeting of wealthy donors, asserting that he cared about the poor and that those who opposed his decision did not.
“I don’t know about you, lady. But when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor,” Kasich said.
Kasich’s proclivity to say what he thinks may make him the Republican candidate in the 2016 primary most similar to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who in 2012 was a nonstop source of news and controversy because of his aversion to saying the same thing the same way twice. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary but dropped out in the spring.
Kasich has also started to run for president once before. He formed an exploratory committee in 1999 to consider running in 2000. He dropped out of contention well before the primary even started, but it shows that Kasich has had the presidency on his mind for a long time.
There is no doubt that Kasich and his backers believe part of his appeal is his empathy for lower-income Americans and his desire to defuse racial tensions in the country and unite people across racial, ethnic and class boundaries.
“He thinks the country needs to come together to restore the American dream, and he has the record to show it,” Schrimpf said.
In 2014, Kasich won reelection with 64 percent of the vote, running essentially unopposed. He got 26 percent of the African-American vote, 60 percent of the female vote and 51 percent of union households, Schrimpf said.
Critics knock the low turnout in the election, but Schrimpf said turnout was low because there was no serious opponent, which showed that “everyone was happy” with Kasich’s leadership. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but Kasich’s record in Ohio does give him something to brag about.
Kasich during his 2014 reelection campaign. (Photo: Al Behrman/AP)
Still, Republican primary voters may not always be the best audience for such boasts. Kasich backed off reforms to collective bargaining with state employees that were similar to the ones passed in Wisconsin by Gov. Scott Walker. Walker then withstood massive protests and won a recall election. Kasich may choose to ignore this contrast, or he might instead embrace it, arguing that Walker’s path was good for Wisconsin but taught him the wrong lessons about national leadership.
Kasich’s fortunes will depend to some extent on whether he can make it to the debate stage on Aug. 6 in Cleveland. Only the top 10 candidates in the national polls will be allowed by Fox News to debate, and Kasich is currently in 12th place in the RealClearPolitics average.
He is in contention for the last two spots, it appears, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
If Kasich can make it, voters can expect more performances like the one he delivered last fall in Florida at the Republican Governors Association annual meeting.
Seated on stage with the 47-year-old Walker, Kasich talked over the younger governor and disagreed vehemently with his telling of history, doing little to hide his irritation with what he considered Walker’s historical ignorance. He was loud, he was funny and he overshadowed Walker that day.
There were three other politicians on the stage in addition to Kasich and Walker. If Kasich wants to make it onto the even more crowded stage and into the group of frontrunners in the enormous field, he will have to perform as well as he ever has on a big stage, without overdoing it. It will be a bit of a tightrope.
(Cover tile photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)