CLEVELAND, Ohio — Karl Rove has some advice for the eventual Republican nominee for president.
Rove, the former deputy chief of staff for former President George W. Bush, was asked Wednesday night what advice he would give to party’s eventual standard bearer about the crucial swing state of Ohio.
“Pretend like you’re running for governor,” Rove said at a fundraiser for three Northeast Ohio colleges here Wednesday night.
At Thursday’s crowded debate, when John Kasich steps behind his podium inside a transformed Quicken Loans Arena, he’ll know better than anyone else how to do just that. That’s because he’s run for the office — and won it — twice.
The pool of 17 contenders vying for the presidential nomination at the GOP primary debates Thursday might seem like pandemonium, but Kasich will feel more at home in Cleveland than the others because he’s in his own backyard.
Less than one month after announcing his candidacy for presidency in Columbus, the second-term Ohio governor broke through the 17-candidate fray on Tuesday, edging out former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and securing a spot in the Fox News-sponsored primetime Republican primary debate.
Ohio is one of a select few battleground states that consistently decide elections — no candidate since John F. Kennedy in 1960 has won the White House without winning Ohio. And Kasich’s success and leadership there could lend him a significant home-field advantage that his team hopes will carry over to a national audience.
From the moment he announced his candidacy, the 63-year-old Kasich has preached an “Ohio story,” focusing on leadership and economic recovery during his time as governor in a state critical to winning the presidency.
It’s a message he continued when he earned a spot in the top 10 to make it onto the debate stage Thursday night.
“It’s only fitting that this phase of the Republican presidential nomination begins in Ohio — the mother of presidents. After all, no Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio,” Kasich said in a statement. “As governor, I am glad to welcome my fellow debate participants to our great state and I look forward to discussing the issues facing our country with them on Thursday.”
So far for Kasich, his approach has paid off. He moved from virtually non-existent status in national polls of the Republican primary to consistently in the top 10, overtaking Perry. A poll of New Hampshire Republican voters released on Wednesday found Kasich in second place in the Granite State, behind only real-estate magnate Donald Trump.
The son of a Pennsylvania mailman, Kasich won his first election to the Ohio Senate when he was just 26, after graduating from Ohio State. In 1982 at age 30, he won a seat in the US House of Representatives, becoming the only Republican that year to defeat an incumbent Democrat. He served nine terms in Congress and spent 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he led a successful effort to balance the federal budget when Bill Clinton was president.
Seen as more moderate than some in his party, he has supported Common Core educational standards, opening pathways to citizenship for immigrants living in the US without permission, higher taxes on the oil and gas industries, and expanding the federal Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.
As governor, he had to circumvent the Republican-led General Assembly to expand Medicaid in his state. He’s the only Republican governor — in a race with four other current or former governors that faced the decision — to have expanded the program.
His time as governor got off to a rather rocky start. His 2010 ousting of incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland was the state’s closest race for governor in 32 years, and Kasich’s early attempts to weaken public employee labour unions in the mould of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), a GOP rival, were roundly rejected by Ohio voters in a referendum.
But Kasich was re-elected in November 2014 in a 30-point landslide. He won 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties in the 2014 race, including the Democratic stronghold counties of Mahoning (Youngstown), Lucas (Toledo), and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga counties — virtually unheard of for a Republican. In 2012, President Barack Obama won Cuyahoga by a two-to-one margin.
Voters in his home state describe him as “gritty,” “edgy,” “voluble,” “unorthodox,” and as everything from a “maverick” to a “rebel” to a “jerk.”
“He’s done a lot of good things with Ohio,” Cleveland native Matt Wagner, 21, said Wednesday. “He won a quarter of the African-American vote. That’s something Rand Paul has talked about, but it’s something Kasich has already done. He won across union households, something that was surprising after his collective-bargaining thing. I think he can really bring the country together.”
“I think he’s amazing,” added James Guirguis of Westlake, Ohio, who described himself as a Republican. “He’s done a lot for the economy in Ohio specifically, and I think if he continues to do work for Ohio the way he’s doing now, and applies it to the whole US, I think he can do great things.”
“Ohio’s going to meet him with big applause,” Yurius said, anticipating Kasich’s reception at the Cleveland debates.
Still, Kasich is not nearly as well known as other candidates, as only an average of 2.8% of Republicans nationally back him.
And though he passed a critical early test by raising those poll numbers enough to land a spot in Thursday’s primetime debate, now he must prove he can distinguish himself from the crowd of colourful aspirants — including Trump, who was first in national polls.
At a fundraiser event previewing the debates Wednesday night, Rove suggested the debate could be just the platform for Kasich to do this.
“He knows how to use television, and he’s got a good story,” Rove said. “You’re going to hear him talk about how he served for 18 years on the Armed Services Committee and understands the dangerous world we live in. You’re going to hear him talk about how he was the chairman of the Budget Committee the last time we balanced the budget, and you’re going to hear him talk about Ohio. And all three of those things are going to be compelling.”
Taylor Hall is a reporter in Washington, DC. She covers business and national security for Medill News Service.
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