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Is Kasich Conservative Enough for 2016 Republican Voters?

While other GOP presidential contenders will be touting their conservative policies, Ohio Gov. John Kasich would have to defend his.

This story was updated June 21.

Four years ago, the prospect of Ohio Gov. John Kasich running for president again wouldn't have seemed possible. After pushing through a law to weaken public workers' collective-bargaining rights -- which was quickly repealed by voters -- he had the lowest approval rating of any governor in the country.

But last year, blessed with a rebounding economy and a weak opponent, the Republican was re-elected by a 31-point margin, carrying all but two of the state's counties.

"In 2011, everyone thought he was politically dead, that he'd be a one-term governor," said Vladimir Kogan, a political scientist at Ohio State University. "Now people are taking him seriously as a president or vice presidential nominee."

But Kasich, who called off his first presidential run early in 1999, has a long way to go.

He officially announced his presidential campaign Tuesday, but polls show him trailing well behind others. Although he appeals to Republicans on paper as governor of what's arguably the most important swing state, Kasich isn't as conservative as his legislature -- let alone other national Republicans. 

One common complaint in conservative circles is that Kasich is too willing to raise taxes. He cut taxes during his first year in office, and his budget this year would have cut income taxes, but because he also wanted to raise sales, e-cigarette and fracking taxes, his package was rejected by lawmakers.

The Republican governor also veers from most in his party by supporting the Common Core education standards. That will be a tough sell, as will his controversial decision to accept the federal expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, which conservatives loath. Kasich circumvented the Republican-led legislature to push the expansion through, winning approval through the state Controlling Board and eventually the state Supreme Court. Under the expansion, Ohio has enrolled almost half a million more individuals in government-subsidized health insurance.

"They replaced people on that board so that he could get the votes he wanted," said Richard Finan, a former Republican president of the Ohio Senate.

Despite his failure to win over conservatives on taxes, education and Medicaid, he's won them over on some social and fiscal issues.

"The governor has lost almost as often as he's won," Kogan said.

Kasich successfully worked with legislators to impose new restrictions on abortion, cutting funding for Planned Parenthood and requiring women to undergo ultrasound testing. He also approved requirements for abortion clinics to have transfer agreements with hospitals -- but barred public hospitals from entering into such agreements. All of these restrictions have cut the number of abortion providers in Ohio in half.

Kasich also succeeded in privatizing the state's economic development agency. Since he took office in 2011, Ohio has added more than 350,000 private-sector jobs, bringing the unemployment rate down from 9 percent to just over 5 percent. Kasich has tirelessly touted the improvement in the economy, as well as his efforts at straightening out the budget. The former U.S. House Budget Committee chair faced a potential shortfall of $8 billion when he took office, but the state now enjoys a surplus and has $1.7 billion in its rainy day fund.

"The state is clearly in a much stronger position, both fiscally and in terms of the economy, since he took office," said former GOP Gov. Bob Taft.

To the dissatisfaction of many conservatives, Kasich supported expanding Medicaid in Ohio under Obamacare. (AP/Tony Dejak)

A Quinnipiac University poll in April showed Kasich's approval rating was comfortably high at 61 percent, compared to 28 percent who disapproved of his job. Still, not everyone is happy.  The governor cut a total of $1.4 billion in local government funding, including substantial cuts in direct aid and the abolition of the estate tax, which primarily benefited cities.

"The local revenue support that the state had always provided was an easy target," said Kent Scarrett, communications director for the Ohio Municipal League. "It was a big pot of money that was there to be chopped, and it was chopped."

Meanwhile, the backlash against his collective-bargaining law has meant Kasich has avoided further fights with labor, even as Republicans in the other industrial states of Wisconsin and Michigan have enacted anti-union right-to-work laws.  

"Had they not stumbled on House Bill 5 early on, I think he'd probably have gotten right to work, easily," Finan said. "It's very toxic for the governor right now." 

While other GOP governors and presidential contenders will be touting their conservative policy achievements, Kasich will spend time having to defend parts of his record.

When challenged, Kasich is fond of saying, "I have a right to define what conservatism is."

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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