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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Kasich Entry Complicates 2016 Race

I know Ohio Governor John Kasich is considered a long-shot to win the GOP presidential nomination. But he does bring to the GOP field a more sober persona than any of his competitors at a time when Donald Trump is grabbing daily headlines with his bomb du jour. WaPo’s Dan Balz has some interesting observations about Kasich’s entry, including:

Ohio Gov. John Kasich joined the crowded 2016 GOP presidential race Tuesday, offering an optimistic message that blends fiscal conservatism with social welfare compassion that he hopes will shake up the Republican Party and vault him into contention for the nomination.
…He spoke of family and faith, of those left behind and those who wonder if the American dream is still alive. “If we’re not born to serve others, what were we born to do?” he said…Kasich begins the contest far back in the field. His advisers say they think he can become a credible threat to win the nomination by force of personality and record. His detractors question whether he has the discipline required for a long and grueling presidential race.

As for the dynamics of the GOP race, Balz notes that, “Collectively, the 2016 GOP field is more experienced and politically heftier than those who sought the nomination four years ago.” However, adds Balz,

At this point, two races are underway. One is a contest among some of the most conservative candidates for supremacy in Iowa. The other is a largely separate contest among those candidates considered less conservative who will need a strong finish in New Hampshire to stay alive…It is the New Hampshire contest that is most attractive to Kasich, who will spend several days there this week campaigning.

For now the media loves Trump, who provides them and late night comedians with endless material. But in a nation where TV still defines a candidate’s media persona, Kasich may have a longer-term edge in the GOP pack, provided he survives the next few months. I’ve noticed that WI Governor Scott Walker is pretty clever about projecting a much more moderate television persona than his extremist record indicates. Kasich, on the other hand, has good media skills, with less to hide. As Balz observes,

He ran for president in 2000 but was an early casualty. He spent a decade in business and television before winning the governorship in 2010 in a state that often helps decide presidential elections. He won reelection in a landslide last November…His supporters think he can connect more effectively than his rivals with his upbeat message and a personality that is direct, occasionally prickly and rarely reserved. Advisers hope that will brand him as authentic at a time of skepticism about canned or programmed politicians.
…In Ohio, he cut taxes and eliminated a sizable budget deficit. To the chagrin of conservatives, he engineered an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He called for spending more money on such things as treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. He cites his religious faith as motivating him to help those in need. He has said he is open to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

But no one should doubt that Kasich will tow the conservative line on major economic issues if elected. As Balz explains, “In his first term, he signed a bill to restrict collective-bargaining rights for public employee unions, along the lines of legislation that caused a partisan eruption in Wisconsin under Walker. When Ohio voters rejected the plan in a later ballot initiative, Kasich accepted defeat and has not clashed seriously with unions since over such issues, although he and organized labor have been at odds over spending and taxes.”
At The Washington Monthly, TDS managing editor Ed Kilgore notes that those who liken Kasich’s chances to those of GOP moderate Jon Huntsman have a point or two:

In theory, Kasich can fix his problem; the most efficient way would probably be to attack the godless liberal media whose adoration is helping crush him. But with just two weeks left before Fox News decides who makes the August 6 debate cut, and Kasich now definitely out of the top ten, it’s doubtful he can simultaneously elevate himself and change his ideological image that fast, particularly with the current fascination over Donald Trump soaking up so much attention.
And here’s the clincher: Kasich’s chief “strategist” is John Weaver; his ad man is Fred Davis; both were fixtures in the mighty Huntsman campaign.
So if you’re interested in Kasich-mania, watch closely. It probably won’t last.

Kasich does face a steep, uphill struggle in a party where an egomaniacal bomb-thrower leads the pack in current polls, and, as Kilgore notes, he is already in danger of not making the cut for the first televised debates. But the fact that he has done so well in a critical swing state makes him a little more of a threat to Dems than Utah’s Huntsman.
In the unlikely event that Kasich somehow gains enough momentum to survive the next few months and eventually get nominated, his ability to project a moderate image could give the Democratic nominee a fight. Win or lose, Kasich will provide an updated test of the GOP’s tolerance for even the appearance of moderation.

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