Could Ohio Governor John Kasich Be 2016’s Dark Horse?

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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There’s a small buzz growing around maverick two-term Republican governor John Kasich. Even as Donald Trump continues to dominate the tabloid headlines, the Atlantic magazine and Fox News, among others, are touting Kasich as a possible dark horse that might emerge from the pack – and possibly resolve the rift between the GOP establishment and base voters scattered among a plethora of upstart candidates.

Kasich is barely registering in the polls and is unlikely to qualify for the GOP debates next month. But there’s good reason why he is getting a close look. Like Scott Walker, his counterpart in neighboring Wisconsin, the 63-year-old Kasich has never lost a political race and remains immensely popular with voters, including many Democrats. But more than anything, it’s because Kasich sits atop one of the most important presidential battleground states – Ohio – which is vital to GOP prospects in 2016.

No Republican has ever won a U.S. presidential election without carrying the Buckeye State, a fact of political life that was driven home painfully in 2012 when Mitt Romney lost Ohio to Obama by three points. Romney’s had hoped a late rally would put him over the top, but traditionally loyal GOP base voters in key Republican strongholds failed to show up at the polls, while African-Americans surged to higher than expected numbers on the Democratic side.

Republicans are intent on that not happening again, and in some circles it’s giving Kasich, who won a landslide re-election win in 2014, with strong support from Democratic constituencies, unusual cachet for a Republican who not only supports the Common Core education standards opposed by GOP conservatives and even embraces key provisions of Obamacare as well as comprehensive immigration reform.

In the past, conservative organizations have attacked Kasich as a dreaded RINO, or worse – and they might again should the man Bob Dole nearly picked as his running mate in 1996, and who briefly ran for president himself in 1999, become more visible in the months ahead. But don’t bet on it. There’s simply too much at stake, and Kasich, who enjoys friendly ties to the GOP establishment, could still prove his mettle with base.

Ultimately, it’s Kasich’s polling numbers that are raising eyebrows. In Ohio, he’s leading the GOP field, by far, over the likes of Walker and Jeb Bush. And it’s not just Republicans: in head-to-head polling with presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, Kasich alone beats her decisively. That may not seem so surprising in Ohio but it already sets Kasich apart from two other prospective rivals, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in Florida, the other key battleground state. Despite being native sons, neither Bush nor Rubio is leading Clinton in the polls, a sign of certain worry for the GOP.

Kasich also brings a distinguished – if controversial – track record to the table. As a nine-term congressman representing Ohio’s12th district, he chaired the House Budget Committee and brokered the deal with President Clinton that balanced the federal budget for the first time since 1969. He also chaired the House conference committee that overhauled the nation’s welfare system by adding new work training requirements. And while serving on the House Armed Services committee, he reached across the aisle to work with liberal Democrats like California’s Ron Dellums to cut major – and his view, wasteful — weapons systems like the B-2 bomber.

Kasich is clearly not afraid to stand up to special interest groups with whom most Republican conservatives curry favor. He angered the National Rifle Association by helping Democrats pass the 1997 ban on military assault weapons, earning a grade of “F” from the NRA that year. He’s even made common cause with feminists in Ohio on issues like sex-trafficking, earning praise from the same Democratic legislators that have attacked his efforts to restrict entitlements or rein in public sector unions by curtailing their collective bargaining rights.

Make no mistake: Kasich is a deficit hawk. He exudes the same kind of pugnacious zeal about reducing entitlements that Walker and Chris Christie in New Jersey do, which helped galvanize Tea Party conservatives behind his candidacy in 2010. But through it all, he’s managed to keep many state Democratic voters – if not always their leaders – on board. Consider this: in 2014, he won a landslide re-election by carrying 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties. One of those counties was Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland.  No Republican in recent memory has ever won the county. Obama carried it handily by a 2-1 margin. It’s a traditional Democratic stronghold.

And that’s one reason why you’re not hearing very much from GOP conservatives – including Tea Party activists. Could that change? It likely would, if Kasich gains any real traction.  Some of his past supporters might forgive his transgressions on immigration – almost every candidate on the race has had to walk back their support for some kind of “amnesty” – but not everybody thinks his deficit-cutting record is stellar – or that supporting an expansion of Medicaid was justified.

Right now speculation about Kasich is just that: speculation. But his Ohio edge is undeniable. Indeed, some GOP analysts feel that Romney erred in not choosing Sen. Rob Portman, another Ohio conservative with a partisan but restrained style, as his running mate in 2012.  If anything, Kasich, who won 63 percent of the women’s vote and 51 percent of the auto worker vote in 2014, exudes an even stronger crossover appeal.

Kasich’s Ohio supporters – he has an 83 percent favorability rating among Republicans – say that he’s the real deal. But, ultimately, it takes more than a strong showing in your home state to make it to the national spotlight – and to survive its forbidding glare.