The outgoing governor seems to be swimming against Ohio's red tide as he continues bantering with a president he opposes and offering a group hug to a disgruntled nation.
Nov. 6 should have been a validation for outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Having served two full terms—winning the first one by a hair and the second by a landslide—Kasich leaves the governor’s office with strong approval ratings in Ohio and a throng of admirers throughout the country. In choosing Mike DeWine to succeed him, Ohio voters endorsed another four years of continued Republican leadership. In ordinary times, Kasich would get at least some of the credit.
These are not ordinary times. In the analyses of DeWine’s surprisingly comfortable victory over Democrat Richard Cordray, the talk around Capitol Square was not about Kasich. It wasn’t even about DeWine. The credit went to Donald Trump.
Trump and Kasich have been tussling over Ohio politics for three years now. At a time when it seems few Republicans are willing to speak out against Trump, Kasich continues to do so. Both contestants in the 2016 presidential race, Trump insulted Kasich as an absentee and ineffective governor. Kasich crushed Trump in the Ohio primary, but couldn’t stop him from cruising to the party’s nomination. Even so, Kasich’s disgust with Trump’s brand of politics kept the governor from attending the event he had fought so hard to secure—the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Instead, he scheduled a few of his own events at the nearby Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Kasich’s refusal to support the Republican nominee had no discernable influence on his constituents, as Trump won a majority of the Ohio vote in his 2016 electoral college victory. Likewise, Ohioans’ apparent embrace of Trump seems to have had no effect on their governor. If anything, Kasich criticizes Trump more than when they were running against each other. A handful of Republican officeholders have occasional bursts of indignation over the president’s demeanor, but none have spoken out as consistently or as comprehensively as Kasich.
“I’m very concerned about the country now,” Kasich says. “I’ve not supported this administration in many ways because I think it’s been too divisive—whether it is family separation at the border or the angst that we’ve seen in foreign policy—and there’s a lot more than that. The name-calling, the blatant partisanship, I don’t like any of that.”
A rare occasion when the two men agreed came this past August when each endorsed Republican Troy Balderson in a closely watched special election for Kasich’s old Central Ohio congressional seat. But Kasich and Trump fought over that, too. When Trump held an event in the district before the election, Kasich accused him of coming uninvited. After Balderson won, Trump tweeted that Kasich was to blame for the razor-thin margin of victory.
The 2018 governor’s race offered the first real test of whether Trump had simply caught lightning in a bottle in Ohio two years earlier. Kasich endorsed DeWine, but did so belatedly and without enthusiasm. Trump’s support for DeWine was full-throated. A mild-mannered personality with more passion for policy than politics, DeWine lured Trump to Ohio to fire up his base. Trump obliged. Appearing with DeWine at Cleveland’s I-X Center the night before the election, Trump assailed Cordray as “a bad man” and warned voters about “caravan after caravan” of illegal immigrants coming to America.
The results 24 hours later came as a pleasant surprise to many Ohio Republicans. The blue wave crashed over other parts of the country, costing Republicans the U.S. House and several governorships, but missed Ohio altogether. The narrative around Capitol Square was that Trump had saved DeWine.
Franklin County Republican Party Chairman Doug Preisse, a close friend and ally of Kasich, suggests that the governor’s two successful terms had made DeWine’s victory possible. But Preisse also acknowledges it was Trump who turned out the Republican vote. “There’s no question,” Preisse says. “The president is a very polarizing figure.” While Trump probably generated Democratic turnouts in the cities, Preisse says, “He drove up votes in the base, I suppose, when he did his rallies.” Kasich has spent three years telling Republicans to separate themselves from Trump. But in Ohio they can’t live without him.
Serving as the nation’s political conscience has not transformed John Kasich into a patient man. There is a certain fidgetiness about him. A question he deems to be irrelevant or trivial is dismissed with a wave of the hand. If the conversation moves too slowly, he will interrupt you in order to make his point. Then he will interrupt himself, midsentence, to make a different point.
Kasich enjoys sharing anecdotes, some of which are on topic, and others that seem to go nowhere. He is prone to vanity, sharing tales about the people who approach him to thank him for his healing rhetoric, or about his frequent invitations to the Sunday morning talk shows. Sometimes Kasich will catch himself and insert something like, “I’m not trying to hold myself up,” and then he’ll finish the story.
But if anyone in today’s political climate deserves to occasionally pat himself on the back, maybe it’s John Kasich. Since finding his empathetic voice during the 2016 primaries, Kasich has played a singular and dependable role in the American public conversation. Though he lacks the eloquence or natural candor of some of his peers, his outspokenness seems to come from the heart. Since his transformation into a progressive Republican has delivered him no political dividends, it is likely authentic. At this late stage of his career, Kasich seems to have realized there is something more important than the next election.
“He’s constantly stopped by people, saying, ‘Please stay out there. Keep being a voice of reason,’” says Preisse, a frequent traveling partner of the governor. Why don’t other Republicans echo Kasich’s observations? “I guess it’s a matter of what degree of tolerance people have for the president’s approach to policy and for his rhetoric,” Preisse says. “Just about everybody condemns the rhetoric, and then it’s a matter of what they try to do about it, if anything.”
Preisse is among a minority of Republicans cheering Kasich on in his role as a critic of his president and his party. To many others, he is a pariah—even in his own administration. Mary Taylor, Kasich’s lieutenant governor and chosen would-be successor, shunned her boss’ support in the 2018 gubernatorial primaries, even running a TV ad in which she boasted, “I’ll end John Kasich’s Obamacare expansion.” Jo Ann Davidson, the former Ohio House speaker who says she is a friend and supporter of Kasich, acknowledges there are some hard feelings toward the governor. “I think most of the criticism that you get about Gov. Kasich is the fact that he is speaking out,” says Davidson, an elected member of the Republican National Committee. “There are a lot of people who think it’s not appropriate for him to do that.”
To Kasich, exercising his freedom of speech is not only appropriate, but the only way forward. Having said that, even some of his admirers acknowledge Kasich is an imperfect evangelist of respect and civility. As a young congressman, Kasich was often described as “brash,” which was a nice way to say that he was kind of rude. His first year as governor in 2011 is mostly remembered for his arrogance and insolence. After making a sharp midterm pivot, Kasich built some strong individual relationships, but never gave sufficient deference to the legislative leadership or his fellow state officeholders. As recently as August, when Trump baited him after Balderson’s victory, Kasich replied with a tweet of his own: a wordless looping video of a laughing Vladimir Putin. It was biting and darkly funny. It was also the kind of thing Trump might do.
“I’m a brawler too. I can fight with the best of them,” Kasich says. “I’m really looking for the great tradition in our country where we all can argue vociferously, but at the end respect one another and try to embark toward a common purpose. And we can have different ways of getting to certain goals, but the goals are important.”
What are Kasich’s goals? Well, the ones he emphasizes publicly these days make him sound a lot more like Barack Obama than Paul Ryan. Protecting health care, welcoming immigrants, supporting free trade, aiding displaced workers and nurturing our foreign alliances are among the policy priorities Kasich rattles off in a brief conversation. Among Kasich’s final acts as governor were fighting with the legislature over bills that would outlaw abortion and expand gun rights.
Still, Kasich sizes up the Democratic Party as harshly as he does his own. He describes Democrats as rudderless, driven solely by their opposition to Trump. He is particularly offended by those who have abandoned Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” mantra. “The Democrats lately are saying, ‘Well, when they go low, we should go low,’” Kasich says. “I mean—absurd.”
The fact that Kasich hasn’t gone over to the other side probably gives his opinions more weight. Unlike the Democrats, who outwardly abhor everything about Trump, Kasich is more selective in his critiques. Therefore, the national media is always curious about what Kasich has to say, even if journalists have a pretty good idea of what it will be. “I’ve not personally attacked the president, and I don’t intend to,” Kasich says. Indeed, the fact that he isn’t America’s angriest or loudest Trump critic may be one reason he is its most effective.
In the eyes of Pat Tiberi, this was always where Kasich was headed. Tiberi has known Kasich longer than most, serving as his legislative aide before following Kasich’s path through the state legislature to succeed him in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. Now president and CEO of the Ohio Business Roundtable, Tiberi says Kasich was always destined to be a thorn in the president’s side. “I’m not surprised,” Tiberi says. “He always was kind of the contrarian.”
Kasich’s foolhardy decision to run for Congress in 1982 had less to do with can-do optimism than the fact that his fellow Republican state senators deliberately eliminated his district in the 1980 reapportionment process because they wanted to be rid of him. After his unlikely victory, the young congressman established himself as a Reagan conservative but with an independent streak. More than most congressional Republicans, Kasich seemed to befriend Democrats, including the activist liberal Ron Dellums of California, with whom he teamed up to block the Bush administration’s order for the B-2 bomber in 1989. “It was a lonely battle against his own leadership and his own party,” recalls Tiberi. “His role was one where you’re on the Armed Services Committee. You’re supposed to be a hawk. And you’re going against your president.”
Kasich became chairman of the House Budget Committee after the 1994 election in which the Republicans won Congress under the leadership of the charismatic and bombastic Newt Gingrich. As speaker, Gingrich hurled public insults and stoked cultural resentments in a way that America had rarely seen from such a prominent public figure. Though Kasich did not copy Gingrich’s political style, he was viewed as one of his top lieutenants.
Several pundits have recently made the case that the tone set by Gingrich created a precedent on which Trump has built. Kasich, who says he and Gingrich today are “not close,” doesn’t completely reject this theory. “I think sometimes that Newt’s language was over the top, yeah.” Kasich says. “But you can’t point to just Newt,” Kasich says, mentioning Senate Democrats’ treatment of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and secretary of defense nominee John Tower in the 1980s. “There were a lot of things that added up to where we are today, including the rise of 24-hour media and more ideologically guided media.”
Following a short-lived presidential campaign, during which he received little support from big donors or voters, Kasich left Congress after the completion of his term at the end of 2000. Despite his occasional departures from conservative orthodoxy, Kasich was in sufficient good-standing with the political right that he got to host his own show on Fox News, Heartland. He was even selected as the substitute host of The O’Reilly Factor whenever Bill O’Reilly was out of town.
After defeating Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in his return to politics in 2010, Kasich’s first year on the job was a near-disaster. His signature legislative accomplishment was passing a bill to end the collective bargaining process for public employees, which earned him the wrath of teachers, police officers and others. He described the fiasco with uncharacteristic self-effacement in an Oct. 16 USA Today column. “A law to supposedly save money for taxpayers left nothing on the negotiating table for hundreds of thousands of unionized public workers,” Kasich wrote. “Not surprisingly, it was handily overturned at the ballot box, and the reason was simple: When we try to have it all our way, we inevitably fail.”
After being chastened by the voters, Kasich changed not only in his manner but, over time, his public priorities. When the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2013, Republican governors around the country underlined their philosophical opposition to Obamacare by refusing to accept the federal Medicaid dollars that came with the law. But Kasich said it would be irresponsible and immoral to turn away $13 billion to extend health care to Ohio’s neediest citizens. Kasich traveled the state to build support for his position, and when he still failed to secure support from Republican legislators, he employed a bureaucratic maneuver, circumventing the General Assembly and accepting the funding through the Ohio Controlling Board.
Tiberi says serving a large and diverse state rather than a Republican-leaning congressional district has evolved Kasich’s worldview. “Being a governor has probably made him more pragmatic about issues than being a legislator,” Tiberi says. “I’m not saying his ideology changed. I think that it rounded off the edges.”
The national media’s initial take on John Kasich’s entry into the 2016 presidential race was that he was like Jeb Bush, but without the name ID. Kasich quickly proved he was a better candidate than Bush and a few others who began the race with high expectations. Kasich received favorable reviews in the first Republican debate in August 2015 when he shared a story about attending the wedding of a gay friend. The counterintuitive anecdote offered a preview of how Kasich intended to run his campaign. Instead of trying to figure out what Republicans wanted to hear, Kasich said what he wanted to say. So, as the other candidates tacked right, Kasich talked about balancing budgets with President Clinton in the 1990s and expanding Medicaid as governor. In other words, he made no real effort to appeal to Republican primary voters.
“The governor did Ohio proud,” says Turner, who now leads Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution organization. “He talked about bringing people together, which was not popular.” She adds with a laugh, “My brother is a conservative Republican, and from his vantage point, the governor is not conservative enough.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump was dominating each debate with boorish behavior and racking up primary victories. Trump’s rise led others to sharpen their own attacks on immigrants and the media. Kasich, uncustomarily, doubled down on kindness, causing some who had worked with him in the past to wonder what had happened to the frequently irascible guy they used to know. “Something happened in the campaign,” Tiberi says. “The way Trump treated people made [Kasich] behave more compassionately, and he felt that this national platform was appropriate to contrast what he believed is the right leadership versus a candidate who he believed didn’t treat people the right way.”
Without fiery speeches or crowd-pleasing talking points, Kasich determined his best strategy was to listen to the voters. Even if he didn’t share their ideology, he seemed genuinely interested in their real-life problems. In his rallies and town hall meetings, Kasich found himself more comfortable giving hugs than serving up red meat. “Politics at its highest level is poetic in nature,” Kasich says. “I changed a little bit in the campaign because it became a lot less about issues and a lot more about the vulnerabilities that people have, whether it’s health care, whether it’s joblessness.”
Kasich hung on into the spring even though he had no conceivable shot at the nomination. But when the RNC declared Trump the presumptive nominee, it effectively forced Kasich from the race. The other Republican candidates have since either embraced Trump, learned to live with him or disappeared from public life. Kasich, through a book tour, speaking engagements and frequent television interviews, never seemed to end his campaign.
Whether he runs for president in 2020 is another matter. By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, on ABC’s This Week, Kasich said he was seriously considering it. His bromance with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado has led to national speculation about a bipartisan independent bid. Kasich, himself, has said nothing to discourage that idea. However, as Tiberi points out, third-party candidacies have no history of success and, if anything, the energy in the electorate is on the fringes, not in the middle. Perhaps more importantly for Kasich’s own purposes, if he were to get any traction as an independent candidate, it would only split the anti-Trump vote and probably guarantee the president’s reelection.
It’s also worth noting that, unlike his friend and donor Les Wexner, Kasich is still a self-proclaimed Republican. Even as Kasich dismisses Republicans as “a shrinking party,” he stubbornly remains one of them. If he continues to do so, that would leave the option of a primary challenge against Trump, which would be widely viewed as a hopeless, if noble, crusade. As Tiberi views Kasich’s options, he concludes the Oval Office is not his ultimate goal. “If you wanted to run for president,” Tiberi says, “you wouldn’t do what John Kasich is doing.”
Then what is Kasich’s next play? Most recently, he suggested that he may go back into the media for a while. But why has he been kissing babies and then teasing a potential candidacy on TV with George Stephanopoulos? Why is he showcasing a brand of politics that swims against his own state’s political red tide? Why does he continue to take on a president who is more popular within his party than Ronald Reagan was in his prime? Maybe it’s not because Kasich thinks he can win. Maybe he does it because nobody else will.