Two years ago almost to the day, I attended a John Kasich campaign rally in the late stages of the 2016 Republican Primary. I was hoping to understand why a man who was mathematically eliminated still pressed on with his doomed campaign.
I ultimately framed that campaign like how Bob Dylan Band-mate Robbie Robertson once described Dylan’s decision to go electric at Newport; Kasich was a “rebel rebelling against the rebellion.” He didn’t care that he was mathematically eliminated, and he didn’t seem to notice that the party was taken hostage by one anti-establishment figure who cut against many of his party’s policies and another anti-establishment figure who seemed intent on burning down Washington, save the parchment on which the Constitution was written. He was fighting against this wave as hard as he could, but I lamented he was “rowing in the wrong river at the wrong time.”
Nevertheless, then as now, he hasn’t laid down his oars.
It seemed that freshly inaugurated President Trump had barely removed his left hand from the Lincoln Bible when speculation of a John Kasich 2020 run began. From the primary season through the general election and into the Trump presidency, Kasich had public breaks with the President’s rhetoric and policies. Then, a few months into the new administration, Kasich started a book tour, noting he also had a “right to define Republicanism.” Before too long, Kasich and Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO) pleaded for both parties to moderate, which led to the media speculating about a potential bipartisan ticket in 2020. Most recently, last month Kasich made a stop in New Hampshire, which, for a politician with obvious dreams of the presidency, is never a coincidence; indeed, while in the Granite State, he even admitted “all options are on the table.”
But what of those options? Term limits will evict him from Ohio’s Governor’s Mansion this January, so he’ll soon have some free time to plot one of three courses:
- Continue being an annoying but ultimately innocuous gadfly on the President’s considerable rump;
- Challenge the President in a Republican Primary;
- Or attempt an independent bid for the presidency.
The first option is inconsequential. It’s the other two where things get interesting.
If he elects to go with Option #2, it’ll be a brutal uphill climb. Starting at the Iowa caucuses in 20 months, he’d challenge either President Trump or whatever’s left of his administration, namely Mike Pence. It also means he’d have to do in 2020 what he failed to do in 2016 — compete in the GOP Primary and win more than one state. Moreover, he’ll have to climb this mountain while fighting against the sitting president, around whom most of the party will presumably rally.
His best hope for Option 2 is that the party grows tired of Trumpism and wishes to return to a more traditional Republican candidate who prefers free trade and balanced budgets over tariff wars and Twitter rants. Kasich would also hope that enough scandal and FBI charges stick to the President that they start to resonate with Republican voters who, to this point, remain relatively trusting of their leader who calmly describes all charges as “A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!”
Kasich would hope this constant drip eventually overflows into a sizable alienation of the President, and that Kasich, as potentially the only high-profile challenger, would consolidate the anti-Trump vote. In contrast, remember, the anti-Trump crowd in 2016 was sliced fifteen different ways, which let Trump tower over the field and gain momentum with his primary victories; he only won 45 percent of the votes in the primary (compare that to Mitt Romney, who won a majority in 2012) but still dominated the field.
Unfortunately for Kasich, Trump’s numbers among Republicans not only show no signs of flagging, they’re actually climbing. CNN assembled a handful of high-profile polls reflecting that rise:
Though there remains a purer, ideologically driven Never Trump faction in the GOP, it’s smaller than it was in 2016, when it clearly didn’t make a difference anyway.
Then there’s perhaps the most damning number for Kasich’s hopes of a primary challenge: a March poll found Trump leading Kasich by 45 points — in Kasich’s home state of Ohio.
That leaves Option #3 — an independent bid in the general election. Perhaps that would be on a ticket with a Democrat, like Governor Hickenlooper (their political celebrity name: Kasichlooper), or perhaps he’ll find an independent or moderate Republican with whom to run. In any case, he’d surely aim to appeal to the country’s political center — disaffected independents and moderates who have grown tired of petty partisan politics and the steadily widening gap between the country’s left and right. (Bias alert: I’d be shocked if such a ticket didn’t earn PPFA’s endorsement and vote.)
Though a different sort of journey than his primary challenge, this route is no less arduous. First, getting on all 51 ballots (50 states plus DC) as an independent is a difficult process that entails getting hundreds of thousands of signatures across the country, including thresholds in each state. Even established smaller parties struggle to pull it off; in 2016, Libertarian Gary Johnson was this century’s first third party candidate to get on all 51 ballots, while the Greens’ Jill Stein fell short at 45.
After that, there’s all the handicaps an independent candidate would face, including:
- hiring seasoned campaign staffers that aren’t attached to a political party;
- fundraising without the infrastructure or corporate benefactors of the two major parties;
- earning endorsements and surrogates from local officials loyal to their party;
- getting in the debates in order to reach a national audience;
- attracting enough voters from each party who would fear that doing so would help their political rivals;
- and, similarly, withstanding a ceaseless cacophony of voices telling him that he’s only spoiling the chances of the lesser of two evils.
These last two could particularly damage a Kasich independent bid. As a life-long Republican, he would face intense pressure and resistance from former friends and colleagues who toe the party the line. These are the sort of people a lifelong party member taps for help in a campaign, but they would probably respond with a cold shoulder.
Ultimately, whether as a Republican or independent, a Kasich run is probably hopeless. Still, I remember seeing him in a small high school gym talking to just a few hundred people even though he had no chance of winning. It was a hopeless cause then, too. Maybe he thinks some things in life are worth losing for.
3 thoughts on “What’s John Kasich Up To?”
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