How John Kasich Made History in 2016

He escaped the curse of sitting governors who lose a presidential bid. Will he ride his statewide success into a national campaign again in 2020?
by | July 20, 2016

As he studiously avoids the Republican convention in his backyard, where ex-rival Donald Trump has officially clinched the GOP presidential nomination, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is getting an earful from Trump supporters who consider him a backstabber for refusing to endorse the candidate. But at least Kasich can comfort himself with the knowledge that he’s already made a bit of history: Kasich is the only sitting governor to lose a presidential nominating race in recent decades and emerge with his political reputation intact -- maybe even gleaming.

In the 2016 Republican primary, three other sitting governors lost. But those three -- Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker -- all returned home to weak approval ratings.

Of course, if history is any guide, that’s to be expected. The list of sitting governors who have returned to diminished support after failed presidential campaigns is long and affects both Democrats and Republicans. For instance, Democrats Jerry Brown of California, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Doug Wilder of Virginia, along with Republicans Rick Perry of Texas and Pete Wilson of California, all found their popularity at or near new lows once home.

But not Kasich. His approval ratings back in Ohio have remained distinctly positive, generally reaching the high 50s or low 60s. "In Ohio, we've seen pretty much across-the-board pride in John Kasich's efforts," Douglas J. Preisse, a longtime Republican strategist in Ohio, told Governing earlier this year.

There are a couple reasons why Kasich has so far managed to escape this curse.

The biggest one is that Kasich acts as a counter to Trump, the most polarizing party nominee in generations who has also fractured support among the GOP. Trump critics inside and outside the party viewed Kasich as running a principled, clean, issue-focused campaign this year. “In the debates, he got to be the adult in the room,” said Vanessa Tey Iosue, president of Burges & Burges, a political consulting firm based in Cleveland.

The other reason lies in Kasich’s ability to navigate controversial issues, which can be traced back to his evolution as governor of Ohio.

Initially, “you could credibly argue that he was the most conservative elected governor of Ohio since the 1940s or 1950s,” said Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native and University of Virginia political analyst who recently authored the book The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President.

Kasich ran into trouble early in his first term when he sought to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees, a proposal that overjoyed conservatives and riled liberals. By the time voters blocked the effort at the ballot box, Kasich’s reputation was in the dumps.

After that, though, Kasich gravitated toward the center and -- buoyed by the national economic recovery -- began to rebuild his standing in the purple state. “He realized that the Ohio electorate respects working people and wants to see policies that protect the most vulnerable,” said Amy Hanauer, executive director of liberal-leaning Policy Matters Ohio.

In particular, Kasich went against his own party to make more people eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This allowed him to paint himself as a pragmatist, and it won him kudos from the center and the left. “That’s the image he tried to take into the presidential race,” said Kondik. “It was popular among the broader electorate, even if he was not the bomb-thrower the Republican base wanted.”

Indeed, Kasich seems to have polished his ideological balancing act. When he signed anti-abortion legislation this year, he did it quietly, out of the spotlight, satisfying the GOP base on substance but not making a high-profile issue of it, said Tom Sutton, a political scientist at Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea, Ohio.

Episodes like this have left Kasich with a more nuanced reputation in the state than the one national voters know from the presidential race. “A lot of us chuckle when we see him described as a centrist because he’s as conservative as they come on [issues like] fiscal policy,” said Sutton.

Kasich remains especially maddening for some Democrats in the state, including labor unions, a significant Democratic constituency. "If you talk to labor, and also to state-level Democrats and the state Democratic Party, Kasich drives them absolutely crazy,” said Kondik. “It was really galling to a lot of Democrats in Ohio to see him portrayed as a moderate.”

So where does Kasich take this carefully crafted reputation next? His second term is up in 2018, which opens the door to a U.S. Senate bid or another presidential run in 2020.

A Senate bid seems less likely at the moment, especially since it would pit Kasich against a major figure in the state: Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown. By contrast, another presidential bid seems plausible, even though he would likely face ongoing resistance from a Republican base that finds him too pragmatic and not ideological enough.

Convention week in his home state of Ohio has attracted attention to Kasich’s approach. Breaking with tradition, Kasich has assiduously ignored official events at the convention. Instead, he has made appearances throughout the city to court delegates, laying out a distinctly un-Trump-like vision for the party.

“With changing demographics, we can’t keep talking to the same old people,” he told a group of Michigan delegates. “Because there’s not enough of us to talk to. It just won’t work.”

This has prompted sniping between Kasich allies and the Trump camp. Kasich “is hurting his state. He’s embarrassing his state, frankly,” said Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort on MSNBC on the eve of the convention. This prompted Matt Borges, the Ohio GOP chair and a Kasich ally, to tweet back, “Manafort still has a lot to learn about Ohio politics.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear Kasich is thinking long term. He recently told The Washington Post that he's "not closing any doors."

Kasich has moved from job to job frequently -- from state legislator to member of Congress to the private sector to governor -- and he’s been successful doing so. But whether the national Republican Party will be ready for him next time remains an open question.

“Maybe in 2020, if the Republicans have three straight presidential losses, the party will be looking for a more traditional candidate,” said Kondik.