Donald Trump’s march to the nomination is up against a roadblock in Ohio: Kasichmentum.
Gov. John Kasich, who barely registered in national polls for most of the primary, just beat Trump in his home state of Ohio, a winner-take-all state worth 66 delegates.
It still puts Kasich behind Ted Cruz in the delegate count, which doesn’t make for an easy path to victory. But winning the nomination at this point is not Kasich’s primary goal. Rather, he is positioning himself to strip as many delegates away from Trump as possible – and he’s gambling that if he plays his cards right, he might be the person to prevail in the ensuing chaos.
The Republican establishment is hoping Trump will arrive at the convention with only a plurality of delegates, rather than the majority needed to win the nomination outright. That could potentially let them block him through a contested convention. But to have a decent chance, they need someone to beat Trump in at least one big state on Tuesday. Now that Marco Rubio was blown out in Florida, that leaves Kasich as the establishment’s last best hope.
Kasich has positioned himself as the anti-Trump
Throughout the primary season, Kasich has deliberately campaigned as the only "nice guy" in the field, declining to take swipes at his opponents for incremental political gains.
He has sought to make his pragmatism a point of contrast between himself and Trump, particularly after bouts of violence broke out at Trump rallies over the weekend, incited by Trump’s rhetoric.
"Ohio is going to send a message that we don't accept those kinds of tactics," he said at a rally this weekend. "That's why I'm going to win in this state, that's why it'll be a whole new ballgame."
But even earlier in the campaign, when Kasich was seeking to make himself competitive in New Hampshire, he softened what were often described as "brusque" or "cranky" edges. On the trail, he referred to himself as "the prince of light and hope" – an obvious allusion to Trump’s insults and rage.
To be fair, though numerous reports rebut his "nice guy" persona, Kasich has seemed to display more of a concern for the poor and disadvantaged, even before he decided to run for president.
In 2013, he became one of the few Republicans to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and vetoed Republican legislators’ efforts to undo that expansion. (That action alone has fueled many of the claims that Kasich is a "moderate.") He has also been known to increase spending on anti-poverty welfare programs, a fact that has not won him many friends among Republican politicians.
And those efforts, combined with an optimistic tone on the trail, seem to be paying off for Kasich in states that have large proportions of voters looking for a more pragmatic Trump alternative.
In New Hampshire, for example, exit polling shows that voters looking for a clear Trump alternative turned to Kasich. Voters who said they were "dissatisfied" (rather than "angry") with Washington overwhelmingly voted for Kasich. Republicans with a college degree picked Kasich, while Trump drew a groundswell of support from voters with only a high school education. And Kasich was the top choice of Republicans saying they’d like to elect a president with previous experience in government, even beating out Marco Rubio in New Hampshire.
Kasich is an orthodox Republican who knows how to work across the aisle
In contrast to the frontrunners – who have adopted extreme, arguably unachievable positions such as deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants – Kasich has been wrongly cast as a moderate.
Kasich is no moderate. More precisely, he is an orthodox Republican on fiscal and social issues, with an occasional independent streak.
The Ohio Republican got his start in politics with an election to the state Senate in 1976. Kasich, who ousted a sitting Democrat, was only 26 at the time and became the youngest state senator in Ohio’s history.
He went on to serve in the House from 1983 to 2001, developing his reputation as a devout fiscal conservative. He targeted programs for cuts across the board, including programs supported by both Democrats and fellow Republicans. He teamed up with an unlikely ally, Ralph Nader, to cut down on corporate tax loopholes, and elsewhere took repeated aim at wasteful defense spending.
During his career in the House, Kasich is perhaps best known for chairing the Budget Committee in the latter half of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Under his leadership, Congress balanced the federal budget for the first time in nearly 30 years, partly by means-testing Medicare. He also shepherded passage of the oft-maligned welfare reform bill of 1996, which made welfare benefits more temporary.
Kasich also talks about his time in the House to demonstrate his willingness to cross the aisle. Though that was occasionally true – he famously voted in favor of the 1994 assault weapons ban, a fact he’s not likely to publicize now – he mostly stuck to his fiscally conservative agenda.
As governor of Ohio, a position he gained in 2010, Kasich has furthered this record as an unmistakable conservative. One of his first acts in public office was an attempt to restrict the power of public employee unions, similar to the type of reform that his northern neighbor, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, achieved.
He signed a law that prohibited all public employees from striking and restricted their ability to negotiate health care and pension benefits. But the law received swift backlash. In 2011, a repeal measure was placed on the Ohio ballot, and the law was struck down by a 61 to 39 percent margin. Following that defeat, Kasich dropped further efforts to curb collective bargaining.
But he has forged ahead on other issues. He has opposed regulating coal in his state, a major industry there, despite being one of the few Republicans in his party to acknowledge human involvement in climate change.
He opposed any efforts to legalize recreational or medical marijuana in his state, though when asked whether he would enforce federal drug laws against states who have legalized the substance, he wavered.
And on the issue of abortion, Kasich’s loyalties are unequivocal: He signed no fewer than 16 new anti-abortion provisions into Ohio law, including one barring abortion providers from seeking admitting privileges with public hospitals. (Abortion providers are required to have such admitting privileges at a hospital to remain open.) He also stripped about $1.4 million in funding from Planned Parenthood, sending chunks of the money instead to crisis pregnancy centers, which do not provide abortion referrals.
Overall, he maintains a favorable rating in the high 70s among Ohio Republicans, a sign he’s kept his party pleased. The fact that Trump has nevertheless made Ohio a competitive primary state, against a hugely popular sitting governor, is a real testament to how much Trump has upended the race.
Kasich can’t win the nomination, but that’s not the point
Over the past few weeks, Kasich remained laser-focused on winning Ohio, barnstorming up and down the state with a fiercely optimistic and anti-Trump message.
His campaign organization, in coordination with the state Republican Party, has laid out a formidable ground game that his team is betting will win him the state.
From here, they’re hoping his win will propel him to the sort of name recognition needed to win Northeastern states, where the primary calendar will soon turn.
But the delegate math is daunting. Ohio, one of the first winner-take-all states, carries 66 delegates. That more than doubles Kasich’s present total, at 63. Still, his current standing makes it essentially impossible for him to reach the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright, even if he does begin racking up wins in more states as the race progresses. (That proposition in itself is daunting, given Trump’s successes in states like New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.)
Trump, who currently holds 464 delegates, is much closer to reaching the magic number – which was why Kasich wanted to snatch Ohio away from him.
Kasich is no longer pretending that the reality is any different, openly acknowledging that his strategy involves forcing a contested convention.
"No one is going to have the numbers," he said on ABC last week.
Commentators have therefore included Kasich in a larger stop-Trump strategy, framing the stakes in Ohio as more of a blow to Trump than a personal victory for the Ohio governor.
Mitt Romney, who has implored the Republican Party to do what it can to stop Trump, recorded robocalls supporting Kasich in Ohio and Rubio in Florida.
Even Rubio’s campaign, in a last-ditch stop Trump effort, urged voters in Ohio to pick Kasich over him in that contest.
But Kasich, ever the optimist, has his own ideas. His campaign rejected Rubio’s support and did not instruct Kasich voters in Florida to flock to Rubio, as some Republicans might have hoped.
In refusing to cooperate in a coordinated Trump takedown strategy, Kasich may be inadvertently helping the frontrunner by continuing to split votes.
But in his estimation, the move was necessary to force Rubio out of the race, leaving him as the last establishment Republican standing. It worked.