Can Crossover Appeal Carry John Kasich?

Last November, John Kasich, Ohio’s brash and charismatic governor and the latest Republican to announce a bid for the White House, won re-election in a landslide. Actually, the word “landslide” is a dramatic understatement; “avalanche” gets at it better. Kasich’s Democratic opponent, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, took only a third of the popular vote, the lowest percentage attained by any Ohio gubernatorial candidate in nearly a century. To make the defeat even more humiliating, Kasich trounced FitzGerald in Cleveland, a strongly Democratic city and FitzGerald’s hometown. Not even Akron or Columbus, usually Democratic mainstays, swung in FitzGerald’s favor. Out of Ohio’s 88 counties, 86 went for Kasich. In a year that saw Republican gains nationwide, Kasich’s victory was a true standout.

In normal times Kasich would instantly be a top presidential contender. Unlike most of the Republicans running, Kasich has shown himself to have strong crossover appeal to Independents and Democrats. His tenure as Ohio’s governor has been that of a moderate. Kasich decided to expand Medicaid in Ohio under the Affordable Care Act, passed relatively progressive criminal justice reforms and increased funding to public schools and universities, including his alma mater and election announcement site Ohio State. Kasich has spent significant time in Washington—he served nine terms in Congress, including two as chairman of the Budget Committee—but his brash demeanor and refreshingly unpolished speaking style mark him as a political outsider. This combination of a strong resume and a compelling political persona is a mixture that is decidedly lacking in the current roster of GOP candidates, and it could be a boon in the general election.

But these aren’t normal times. Kasich is the last of sixteen major candidates to declare their candidacies for the presidency, and he faces a brutal race without a natural base and little momentum. Media coverage has centered on Donald Trump’s campaign. Kasich’s announcement, while still reported by all major news sources, got lost in the firestorm over Trump’s comments about John McCain. Meanwhile Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are jostling for the title of Establishment favorite, and the money has overwhelmingly gone to Bush. Kasich is unlikely to be able to break into that primary-within a-primary, even with significant Super PAC money and strong credentials. He’ll have even less luck with the party’s far right. Kasich is viewed with suspicion by much of the Tea Party and small government conservatives because of his support for the Common Core curriculum standards and his statement, aimed at congressional Republicans, that he is “concerned that there’s a war on the poor.” Kasich’s problem—the reverse of that of many Republican presidential candidates—is that he’d be a much stronger candidate in the general election than in the primary.

Kasich’s situation isn’t totally hopeless, however. His first major hurdle will be polling. As of yesterday’s polling aggregate, he has a good chance of being invited to the first GOP debate, sponsored by Fox News. If he doesn’t make it into the debate, his campaign will probably be over long before Iowa. If he does make it, however, things could get interesting. Kasich is arguably the only candidate running without significant baggage. He comes free of scandals, electability problems, and a problematic family name. In a primary that has the potential to frustrate even the most committed of Republican partisans, disillusioned voters could turn to Kasich as a sane, moderate, and fresh alternative. He can only hope they do.

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