Photograph by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images
Some run for president to win a consolation prize: A cabinet position. A bigger donor base. A gig as a Fox News host. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s reward for his 2016 presidential campaign is a brand-new reputation. He’s transformed his image from belligerent to sunny, arrogant to folksy, hothead to hugger.
“So I’m running for president,” Kasich told a crowd of 750 at Bryant University in Rhode Island, three days before the state’s April 26 primary. “So what? You don’t think the Lord cares any more about me running for president than the guy who’s turning the lights off at night?”
This year on the campaign trail, from New Hampshire to California, Kasich addressed voters as if he were an inspirational Sunday school teacher. He told crowds at rallies that they were made for a special, higher purpose, even asked them to take lonely widows out to dinner. “We’re all made equal,” he informed the Rhode Island crowd. “It’s all about us using whatever skills we have to heal the world.”
This feel-good message brought him rewards, though not the one he hoped for. His positive message and refusal to engage in internecine combat during televised Republican debates helped him outlast 15 other GOP candidates for president, including hopefuls with much higher name recognition—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie among them. After his favorite-son victory in Ohio’s March 15 primary, Kasich emerged as the most-liked Republican presidential candidate, scoring the highest favorability ratings in national polls. Granted, that’s sort of a Mr. Congeniality prize in 2016; in terms of actual votes, he ran third in a field of three behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Yet Kasich treated it as a position of nobility. “Mr. Kasich has campaigned as a happy warrior and a moderate, a sort of self-styled conscience of the establishment wing of the party,” declared The New York Times in late April.
All of which is slightly surreal for Ohioans, who, even if they’ve voted for the guy, know Kasich too well to trust his newfound reputation in the other 49 states. Only five years ago, Kasich began his governorship with a toxic mix of insults and injuries. He earned the undying hatred of state police and teachers for his anti-union drive, publicly called a police officer who wrote him a ticket an “idiot,” and warned lobbyists: “If you’re not on the bus, we will run you over with the bus.”
His short temper, impatience, and brusque manner are infamous in Ohio politics. “One day, you’re his best friend,” says state Senator Jay Hottinger, a Republican from Newark. “The next day, he can act like I don’t even know who you are.” After getting a hug from Kasich at a campaign event, Hottinger texted his wife: “It was Dr. Jekyll today instead of Mr. Hyde.”
Hottinger got a good look at Kasich-as-Hyde back in 2011, when he advised the governor to tone down some of the reforms in Senate Bill 5—which aimed to limit collective bargaining for public employees such as police, firefighters, and teachers—or risk defeat in a referendum. Kasich’s response? “Why would I want 60 percent when I can get 100 percent?” Hottinger recalls.
The governor’s fuse is short enough that statehouse regulars feel duty-bound to warn folks who unwittingly walk into his spray zone. Says one Columbus lobbyist: “I told a client before we went into a meeting with the governor, ‘He may yell back at you for 20 minutes, but afterward, you’re going to have a really good meeting.’ ”
Even John Boehner, the retired Ohio congressman and Speaker of the House, has hinted at Kasich’s difficult personality. During the same Stanford University talk in April where he made headlines for calling Ted Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh,” Boehner noted that Kasich “requires more effort on my behalf than all my other friends,” before adding, “but he’s still my friend, and I love him.”
Thing is, Kasich has more self-awareness than most politicians; he knows he’s a hothead. In his 2006 book Stand for Something: The Battle for America’s Soul, he spends three pages recounting his vendetta against a Blockbuster video store for renting him the movie Fargo. Upset by the scene in which one crook throws another crook’s body in a wood-chipper, Kasich called the store and “demanded that they take the movie off their shelves.” After a second angry call in which he insisted the store label films with graphic content, his wife Karen told him to back off. “Sometimes I get a little crazy and go off about something like this Fargo business, with no real expectation but to let off some steam,” he wrote. “I can’t imagine it’s all that much fun to be on the receiving end of one of my tirades.”
Now, as the city of Cleveland readies itself to host what’s likely to be a contentious Republican National Convention this month—with Trump as the party’s presumptive presidential nominee—Kasich is no longer just the governor and unanimous candidate of the state’s delegation. He’s also the vanquished candidate of the party’s pragmatic, compassionate, likeable—if dwindling—wing. How’d he pull that off? Where exactly did Kasich the Nice Guy come from?
The vibe at Kasich’s Rhode Island rally was classic conservative, harking back to a time before the Tea Party’s revolt and Trump’s Vince McMahon–style hype and hostility. College students, wearing “Kasich for President” stickers on pressed lapels, lined stairwells above the spot where he stood. A giant American flag hung behind him. To his right a wide green sign read “OUR NATIONAL DEBT,” its digital readout running upward past $19.2 trillion.
Kasich grabbed the mic and told the crowd how he used to be arrogant. It’s a greatest hit from Kasich’s bio, the story of how, as an 18-year-old Ohio State University freshman, he wrangled an invitation to the White House by mau-mauing the university president into delivering a letter to President Nixon.
“I was sitting on a little bench just outside the Oval Office, and a guy walks up to me and says, ‘Young man, you’re going to get five minutes alone with the President of the United States,’” Kasich recalled. “I was thinking, I didn’t come all this way for five lousy minutes!” Kasich talked Nixon’s ear off for 20—more time in the Oval Office, he says, than he ever got in his 18 years in Congress. “I peaked out at the age of 18!” he cracked, garnering laughs and applause.
For 13 minutes, Kasich told stories that careened from folksy to self-deprecating to nostalgic to pious. He reminisced about his working-class mother, father, and grandfather, and his childhood admiration for Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates. “My whole life has been a lightning strike,” he said. “It’s only because of the grace of God that I’ve been able to achieve what I’ve been able to achieve. If you don’t like that, I’m sorry, but that’s the way I see it.” The crowd cheered, as if to rebuke Kasich’s bitter, atheist straw man.
Soon, though, he reached for a Reagan-esque, morning-in-America sense of purpose and community. “The spirit of our country, which needs to be regenerated, is born in us,” he said. “There are so many worries that we’re all alone. We can fix that, and we can heal that, if we remember that we’ve got a purpose.”
When Kasich eventually pivoted to the issues, it was nearly all fiscal conservatism with a bit of national security tossed in. He made sure to reference his service on the House budget and armed services committees in the 1980s and ’90s, when he represented Ohio’s 12th district. “Regulations kill. Raising taxes kills,” he warned. He didn’t mention a single social issue, never hinting at his opposition to gay marriage or the anti-abortion bills he’s signed. He promised to build up the military and destroy ISIS, “in the air and on the ground, with our Arab Muslim friends, along with Europe.”
This Kasich is the type of conservative Republican voters used to like: a sober pragmatist, a problem-solving budget hawk. Ohioans scoffed when national commentators dubbed Kasich as a moderate; on issues from abortion to unions to escalating the war with ISIS, he simply isn’t. But he does talk of pragmatic compromises with Democrats and a middle ground on issues such as climate change. Compared to Trump’s angry nationalism and Cruz’s gleeful willingness to shut down the federal government, Kasich is a centrist in today’s Republican Party. Independents, old-school conservatives, and newspaper editorial pages saw him as the GOP’s most sensible man, the adult on the stage—which proved to be a kiss of death with the party’s base.
Without naming Trump, Kasich pitched himself as The Donald’s Republican opposite. “This idea that we’re going to have a religious test, and we’re not going to let Muslims come into the country, is stupid,” he said to applause. He defended free trade while promising to retrain displaced workers. “Some people will say, Just lock the doors. Are you kidding me? How are we supposed to lock the doors when we have a global economy?”
Kasich’s aim was to win with ideas, not insults. “I’m not going to attack your husband, or attack the way you look,” he added. “When politicians attack each other, it makes the rest of us cynical.”
This politician knows of what he speaks. During Kasich’s tempestuous first year as governor in 2011, his confrontations threatened to doom him. Then he shifted, mounting an improbable comeback based on a swing to the center and some self-control. His job approval rating nearly doubled, climbing from 30 percent in early 2011 to 58 percent as of May.
Supporters say he’s reaping the benefits of tough decisions made early on. “He talked about how, when he embarked upon his governorship, he was going to be unpopular for a while,” says Rob Frost, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party and a Kasich delegate to this month’s RNC. “His record on the rainy-day fund and the budget surplus has turned around his reputation. He stuck to his guns. Some would call it stubborn, but he’s produced results.”
Others feel Kasich learned a lesson. After voters shot down Senate Bill 5 to the tune of 61 percent, he started seeking common ground with the opposition. Kasich formed strange-bedfellow alliances with African-American Democrats, supporting second chances for ex-offenders, police reform, Cleveland school reform, and set-asides for minority firms in state contracts. More fateful to his career was his decision to accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which he says came from a desire to help the poor. The move infuriated Tea Party voters in Ohio and on the presidential campaign trail. In the eyes of the uncompromising conservative, it made him a Republican In Name Only, a squishy sell-out. Even liberals who’ll never forget Senate Bill 5 had to concede Kasich was capable of surprising them.
Dealing with Democrats still sets him off though. In January, even as he was telling New Hampshire voters how good he is at bringing people together, Kasich complained to a Time reporter that “the ringleaders in the [state] legislature, who are thugs, bully their members to stay away from me.” (Aides backpedaled for him, claiming he was only talking about former state Democratic chair Chris Redfern.) But Kasich has softened his reputation just enough that some Ohio Democrats, aghast at Trump’s rise, crossed over to vote for Kasich in March’s Republican presidential primary. An exit poll showed that 1 in 11 state GOP voters actually identified themselves as Democrats, and 56 percent of them voted for Kasich. The vast majority were likely voting to block Trump, not elevate Kasich—but still, the fact that they chose him over Cruz and Rubio was telling.
Natalie Bauman, a 54-year-old entrepreneur in the Cleveland suburb of South Euclid, says she doesn’t like Kasich’s opposition to teachers’ unions and Planned Parenthood, but after seeing his performances in presidential debates, she switched her party registration to vote for Kasich and against Trump. “Kasich does have the advantage of seeming like a calm, intelligent, thoughtful person,” she noted.
Just as Kasich’s early attempts to remake the balance of power in Columbus brought out his combativeness, other parts of his agenda—and the seismic shifts in national politics—have forced him to get in touch with his softer side. Hottinger, who sent the “Jekyll and Hyde” text, says Kasich’s new reputation isn’t based on an act. “The side of the governor you see out there, where he’s compassionate, hugging people, at times he tears up—that’s real, that’s legit,” he says. At a March event in Hottinger’s district, he says Kasich’s voice cracked when responding to an audience member “somewhere on the autism spectrum” about his struggles. “Too many times to count, I’ve been able to see—it’s almost like the preacher coming out of him, speaking about people’s God-given purpose for their life.”
Kasich was raised Catholic and returned to religion after his parents died in a 1987 car crash. His 2010 book, Every Other Monday, describes 20 years in a Bible study he organized in Westerville. In the book, he refers to himself and study-group friends as “slobs,” a reference to Joan Osborne’s 1995 hit song that pondered if God was “a slob like one of us.”
“God is good and just, and at the end of the day, He’ll square things up,” Kasich wrote. “I know this surely as I know myself.”
His belief in delayed justice may help explain why he stayed in this year’s presidential race so long. In a brief press scrum following his Rhode Island rally, after a question about his resolve not to attack his opponents, he offered this: “I’m no saint here, but just trying to do the right thing. I happen to believe, over time, most of the time, the right thing works. But if you’re looking for justice, you better start looking on the other side of the grave.”
To hear the 64-year-old Kasich tell it, age and fatherhood have mellowed him. “My wife told me that one time,” Kasich told Matt Bai of Yahoo! News last year. “She said, ‘You’re the father of Ohio. Would you act like it?’ ” The metaphor seems to have resonated with Kasich, who has twin 16-year-old daughters, a fact that could also contribute to his change in temperament.
Sometimes it goes over well, and sometimes it doesn’t. At the Rhode Island rally, Kasich’s promises to take the high road received applause, his corny dad jokes hearty laughs. But the crowd grew silent when Nicholas Celico, an 18-year-old University of Rhode Island freshman, asked Kasich if he could help lower the interest on student loan debt.
“You should be able to restructure your loan,” Kasich said. Then he asked Celico, “Did you know you could’ve gone to community college for two years and cut the cost of your college education in half? Why didn’t you do that?”
“Better opportunities?” Celico answered.
When talking to younger voters, Kasich often shifts into this condescending dad mode, giving overbearing, inappropriate, or just plain bad advice. It got him in trouble at an April town hall in New York state, where a female student asked how he would combat sexual violence on campuses if he became president. Kasich talked about Ohio’s work to support campus rape victims—he authorized $2 million for the effort last year—but then added, “I’d also give you one bit of advice: Don’t go to parties where there is a lot of alcohol.” Women’s groups and Democrats blasted him as a victim-blamer.
Whether he’s in his arrogant wants-it-all mode or channeling his humble Sunday school teacher, Kasich still lacks a filter. It helped him survive longer than most in the 2016 presidential race, where the ability to project authenticity beat down the programmed and scripted. But it also means he can still come off as a jerk, even to voters on the right. In an April interview with The Washington Post editorial board, Kasich was asked why he thought his presidential campaign hadn’t been more successful. “Frankly, my Republican Party doesn’t like ideas,” he answered. “They want to be negative.”
Two days after Kasich’s rally, Trump also spoke in Rhode Island. He railed against Syrian war refugees who’ve settled in the state, and his audience agreed, responding with loud boos. “Lock your doors, folks,” said Trump. “Who knows, maybe it’s ISIS.”
The next day, Trump waxed Kasich, earning 64 percent of the vote to Kasich’s 24 percent amongst Rhode Island voters, winning 12 delegates to Kasich’s five. They were the only delegates Kasich won in five Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states on April 26—a day his campaign had once pointed to as a potential breakthrough moment.
Kasich’s pitch that he was the only electable Republican—that Trump and Cruz couldn’t beat Hillary Clinton—never caught on. The favorite-son victory in Ohio was his only primary win. By April, his campaign had already admitted it was focusing its hopes on a contested convention and a win on the third or fourth ballot, a stage no Republican convention has reached since 1948.
It’s not entirely Kasich’s fault he didn’t fare better against Trump and Cruz, according to Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. “The things that make John Kasich a good candidate in a typical year—his experience, his running a large state—are handicaps in this election,” he says.
Smith thinks Kasich’s openness to a bipartisan compromise on immigration (he’s in favor of a path to legalization for illegal immigrants, though not citizenship) disqualified him with much of the Republican electorate. Still, Smith views Kasich’s decision to run a positive campaign as a wise one, “because he helped distinguish himself from the other candidates.” In fact, polls show Kasich and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont as the only presidential candidates with net favorability ratings nationwide—more liked than disliked. The only problem is that Republican voters “want a candidate who’s angry, who’s going to give them red meat,” says Smith.
Upshot: Kasich may be a jerk, but he’s only a minor jerk in the Republican Party of 2016. With Trump outgunning him in bellicosity and Cruz outdoing him in epic unlikeability, and the primary electorate rewarding ad hominem attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, Kasich was simply out of sync with the moment. Would he have been smarter to run as the Kasich of 2011, growling at opponents and bashing unions? Smith doubts it. “I don’t think he could out-Trump Trump,” he says.
The effort lasted until May 4. The day after Trump’s victory in Indiana put him on a clear path to clinch the Republican nomination, Kasich boarded a plane bound for Washington, intending to continue his campaign as Trump’s last remaining rival. A few minutes later, he changed his mind and called off the trip. He officially dropped out of the race that afternoon, delivering an emotional speech that said nothing about Trump’s ascendancy.
It’s a stance that will force him to awkwardly balance at least three distinct roles at the Republican convention in Cleveland this month—still-popular governor of the state; failed presidential candidate; and possibly the last believable representative of the party’s compassionate-conservative cadre. The 66-member Ohio delegation Kasich hand-picked will be one of the convention’s most visible blocs of establishment Republicans, and they will no doubt struggle with the prominent and painful dilemma over how much to embrace Trump while resisting Trumpism. Political pundits have speculated whether Kasich would accept the vice president spot on a Trump ticket or a position in a Trump cabinet, but Ohioans who know Kasich are skeptical.
“I don’t believe there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that John Kasich would ever be Donald Trump’s running mate, period,” says George Voinovich*, former Ohio governor and U.S. Senator and a Kasich convention delegate. “I don’t think he respects him. He doesn’t think [Trump] would be the right person to be president.” In May and June, Kasich told reporters he wouldn’t endorse Trump unless the presumptive nominee turns away from scapegoating and negativity.
However, a Trump nomination might not spell the end of Kasich’s own presidential ambitions either. “He’s positioning himself well for 2020 if the Democrats should win,” says David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “He’d be the only one of the 17 [Republican] candidates who looks better at the end of the process than the beginning.”
Republicans tend to select a presidential nominee based on who was runner-up in a previous election, a habit that stretches from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney. But a Republican defeat in 2016 could help Kasich in four years. “Parties exist to win elections,” says Smith. “If this [Trump] style of Republican loses in the general election, it’ll be easier to make the case that they need a different style.”
Come 2020, Kasich will be a 68-year-old term-limited former governor with plenty of free time. Perhaps that belief in delayed justice will pay off a bit sooner than the afterlife. He’s already attained an unexpected reputation as a nice guy. Will consolation prizes be enough?
*Update: George Voinovich passed away after this issue went to press.