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5 things to know about John Kasich, the GOP candidate urging his party to help the poor

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Today, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio became the 16th candidate in the Republican race. And as I argued in my profile of him this week, there's quite a lot that's fascinating about his candidacy and his background.

Kasich has evolved in a way that's unusual for politicians. He was known at first for his obsession with government spending cuts, but as governor he fought extraordinarily hard to implement Obamacare's Medicaid expansion in Ohio. All the way, he was guided by his Christian faith, arguing that supporters of limited government had to come up with better solutions to help the poor.

All this is very unusual for a modern Republican. So while his candidacy looks like a long shot right now, the ideas and approach he's presenting make him worth keeping an eye on.

1) Kasich was the Paul Ryan of the 1990s — the young, energetic face of Republican budget cutting in Congress

Kasich spent 18 years in the House of Representatives, and he was no mere back bencher. He not only chaired the House Budget Committee after the GOP took Congress in the mid-'90s, but he also waged a highly public campaign to slash federal spending for years. Eventually he helped broker the 1997 balanced budget agreement between President Clinton and congressional Republicans.

The budget didn't stay balanced long, but it's an achievement Kasich will tout on the campaign trail. He even explored a presidential bid back in 1999 because of it, spending months on the trail. But after George W. Bush raised far more money than him and firmly entrenched himself as the frontrunner in the polls, Kasich concluded he couldn't win. He quit the race that July, and announced he'd retire from Congress.

2) Kasich passed a Scott Walker–like union law in his first year as governor — but voters repealed it

When Kasich returned to politics and was elected governor of Ohio in 2010, he and his party quickly moved to roll back the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Just as when Scott Walker pushed a similar bill in Wisconsin, a huge controversy ensued, with union-led protests in the statehouse. The bill Kasich signed went further than Walker's in many ways, and Kasich bragged that "no one has tried this level of reform, that I’m aware of in the country, including Wisconsin."

But Ohio's constitution allowed new laws to be put up for a statewide vote of approval, and unions gathered the signatures to do so. Kasich campaigned in favor of the law, but when the state's voters cast their ballots in November 2011, he lost overwhelmingly, 61 to 38. "It's time to pause," he said at a news conference. "The people have spoken clearly." Asked what they said, the governor responded: "They might have said it was too much too soon."

3) Kasich defied his party to expand Medicaid, making a Christian case for helping the poor

After the Supreme Court effectively made Obamacare's Medicaid expansion optional for states, Kasich surprised many with the fervor he demonstrated in favor of it. Other GOP governors had supported the expansion for pragmatic reasons — lots of federal funds were being offered — but Kasich went much further than them, in both his tactics and his rhetoric. He argued repeatedly that not only was the policy the right thing to do, it was the Christian thing to do — and that its opponents weren't doing enough to help the poor. Here's the sales pitch he described himself making to a recalcitrant legislator in 2013:

I said, "I respect the fact that you believe in small government. I do, too. I also happen to know that you're a person of faith. Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he's probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.  "

The legislature was unmoved, but Kasich didn't give up. He used a little-known state body called the "Controlling Board," typically used to handle adjustments to the state's budgetary flow, to implement the expansion without approval from the full legislature. Conservatives were outraged, but Kasich had won. As a result, hundreds of thousands more Ohioans got Medicaid.

And as he's moved closer to a campaign this year, Kasich hasn't backed off from his views. "Read Matthew 25," Kasich said on Fox News a few months back. "Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? If we're doing things like that, to me that is conservatism." He then bristled: "And you know what? I have a right to define conservatism as much as somebody sitting up in the stands down in Washington trying to tell us what we ought to do."

4) Kasich can come off as a jerk

The nice way to describe Kasich's personality is that it's "unvarnished," or that he says what he thinks. The not-as-nice but perhaps more accurate description, in the words of the Atlantic's Molly Ball, is that Kasich is "kind of a jerk." Ball writes:

Lobbyists in Columbus warn their clients before meeting the governor not to take it personally if he berates them. A top Ohio Republican donor once publicly vowed not to give Kasich a penny after finding him to be "unpleasantly arrogant." ... I spent several days with Kasich in Ohio in February, and during that time he told me, repeatedly, that he did not read The Atlantic—and his wife didn’t, either. He said that my job, writing about politics and politicians, was "really a dumb thing to do." Later, he singled me out in a meeting of cabinet officials to upbraid me for what he considered a stupid question in one of our interviews.

It's true — Kasich often gets annoyed, he insults people, he questions his opponents' motives. In a visit to Ohio Environmental Protection Agency workers during his first month as governor, Kasich angrily recounted how an "idiot" police officer gave him a ticket three years earlier. He used the word "idiot" three times, and after the remarks became public, he was forced to apologize to the officer. His campaign is presenting this as "unscripted" in the style of John McCain, but it's not yet clear whether primary voters will view this as a positive.

5) Some view Kasich as the most promising second-tier candidate, but others think he's another Jon Huntsman

From the polls alone, it's difficult to see a difference between Kasich and the most minor candidates in the GOP's large field. He's averaging 1.5 percent support in the RealClearPolitics national poll average, which puts him close to long shots like Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, George Pataki, and Lindsey Graham. As of today, he wouldn't qualify for the first Republican debate.

Yet of that bunch, Kasich's credentials are arguably the best for Republicans seeking an accomplished but less polarizing alternative to Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Ohio is a key swing state, and Kasich not only won reelection in a 31-point landslide last year —greatly helped by a self-destructing Democratic opponent — but he remains quite popular in the state. He also has some financial support: An outside group supporting him has raised $11.5 million so far — not Bush money, but enough for a healthily funded pro-Kasich ad campaign to start airing in New Hampshire, an early state he sees as crucial to his chances.

Others, however, are more skeptical. Kasich's willingness to challenge his base has led some to believe he has a "Jon Huntsman problem," as Kyle Kondik of Politico Magazine argued earlier this month and Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight writes today. Huntsman, in his ill-fated 2011-'12 presidential campaign, couldn't restrain himself from repeatedly pointing out how wrong he thought the Republican base was about practically everything. And, making the comparison even easier, two key consultants for Huntsman's infamously dysfunctional effort have joined Kasich's team.