He jumped into the presidential race late, says what’s on his mind and tramples party articles of faith. No, not Donald Trump. Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
With Trump acceding Thursday to the Republican National Committee’s demand for a pledge not to run as an independent, Kasich has positioned himself as another unconventional candidate, albeit one without bluster and anger. After waiting until the end of July to announce, he’s shot near the top of New Hampshire polls behind Trump.
While Trump has ascended with assertions that Mexican immigrants are rapists, insults to rival Jeb Bush and the slogan “make America great again,” Kasich has avoided criticizing opponents. He’s touting himself as a candidate with a record of accomplishment who is willing to work with Democrats, buck orthodoxy to help the disadvantaged and be a force of “positiveness.”
“I’m not going to be angry in order to win an election,” Kasich told reporters Wednesday after a town-hall meeting at Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, New Hampshire.
Just as Trump committed a Republican apostasy by proposing higher taxes on the wealthy, Kasich has angered conservatives by expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Nor will he rule out a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The rest of the field largely toes the party line. Almost all oppose anything to do with Obamacare, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has even criticized Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to replace it as “Obamacare lite.” Most have signed no-new-tax pledges and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service altogether.
This has been the summer of Trump, as the New York real estate mogul surged, disconcerting Republican elites. His aggression strikes voters as a solution to their problems, said David Winston, who is president of the Washington strategy firm Winston Group.
“People are looking for someone who’s going get it done,” he said. “It’s not just simply someone coming in and blaming someone else.”
Kasich is trying to capitalize on that desire by promising to pursue pragmatic and bipartisan solutions to immigration and other issues and to help the poor, regardless of opposition within the party. Unlike Trump, he’s also emphasizing his record in government as an 18-year congressman who helped balance the federal budget and as a two-term governor as his state recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
“Some people say, ‘You’ve been in the system a long time, and all the voters like these outsiders,’” Kasich said during a town-hall meeting Wednesday in West Lebanon. “I acknowledge their problems, but I think we all want somebody who knows how to land the plane.”
During five standing-room only events in New Hampshire this week, his 12th trip to the state with the nation’s first primary and where about 40 percent of the voters are independent, Kasich sounded tones of both confidence and humility.
In New London, he said he has “a really good chance to win.” He became emotional at his appearance in Hooksett after he was introduced and endorsed by state Sen. David Boutin, who called him “steadfast” and “authentic.”
“Sometimes it just strikes your nerve, it strikes you in a way that you just say, ‘I’m just doing my best,’” Kasich told reporters afterward.
“You’re a refreshing Republican,” a man at the Hooksett event told Kasich after he said he would fix Social Security and a gridlocked Washington by seeking measures that both parties could accept.
At each stop in New Hampshire, Kasich told voters to count their blessings that they lived in the U.S.
“You will be best if you live a life that’s bigger than yourself,” Kasich told students at New England College in Henniker. “Be a center of justice and healing.”
Kasich, who has focused on New Hampshire as his path to the nomination as Bush and other top contenders have underperformed, now must demonstrate that he can compete elsewhere. While he’s touted endorsements by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and others, he was at 2 percent in the latest Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll released Aug. 29 and tied for seventh in a national Quinnipiac University Poll on Aug. 27.
Kasich’s rise in New Hampshire is mostly the result of committees backing him spending a “massive” $5 million for television ads starting in July, said Mike Murphy of Right to Rise USA, the super PAC supporting Bush. Right to Rise starts advertising in New Hampshire soon, he said.
“We are confident Jeb will work hard and earn strong support,” Murphy said.
Kasich hasn’t come close to the $114.6 million that committees backing Bush reported raising during the first six months of the year, yet his $11.7 million through June 30 has been competitive with other candidates.
What’s important at this point is that Kasich seems comfortable and isn’t retreating from unpopular positions, said Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee.
“He seems to be enjoying it, which is a very healthy sign,” Stevens said. “My experience is that candidates who are enjoying a race are usually doing well in that race.”