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John Kasich's Candidacy for President Owes a Lot to His Instincts and Evolution as Governor

John Kasich announcing he's running for president

Click here to a  story on NPR digging deeper on Gov. Kasich's record as Ohio's governor.

  Saturday’s presidential primary is in South Carolina, but John Kasich also has been taking his campaign elsewhere – to Michigan and other states where his message of relative moderation is likely to be a better sell. WKSU’s M.L Schultze sat down with Cleveland.com’s political reporter Henry Gomez to review the evolution of Kasich since he was elected governor in 2010.

Kasich was in Congress for 18 years before heading to Fox News as an analyst and Lehman Brothers as a director.  Cleveland.com reporter Henry Gomez says – even in the private sector – Kasich retained his feel for what voters were looking for. And in the 2010 election, that meant the Tea Party and its list of grievances against government.

“We were in the middle of a great recession with all these jobs lost and people were angry with (Gov.) Ted Strickland. And he smartly tapped into that then. And in a very close race, it probably helped carry him to his election victory that year. ”

“He does have this ability to recalibrate, rebrand and reset expectations based on the mood of the electorate. He’s very good at sensing what voters are feeling and then trying to tailor his message to that.”

But in 2011, his instinct failed him. Kasich backed S.B.5, which would have stripped public employee unions of most of their bargaining rights. The backlash forced the  issue onto the ballot, where voters overwhelmingly overturned it.

“And from that election night in 2011, when S.B.5 went down in flames, we’ve seen and heard a different John Kasich. He said that night, ‘I’ve heard the voice of the voters. I respect them.’ And he sort of began this move back to the middle.”

Here's an ad from the American Future Fund questions Kasich's conservative credentials:


In 2013, he angered another group of voters. Kasich backed Medicaid expansion in Ohio, made possible largely because of Obamacare.

“And that was his big breakup with the Tea Party. And it’s also become, though, the keystone of his presidential campaign. He talks about how he was the guy who wasn’t willing to ignore ‘the people in the shadows’ and Medicaid expansion was helpful to them, to the people who suffered from drug addiction and mental illness and lower income families.”

It’s been a tough issue for him in the GOP presidential primary. But Gomez says unlike some other candidates who have crossed conservative doctrine, Kasich hasn’t run from the issue.

“He has decided that if this is what it takes to stand out in a big and crowded field with loud voices, this is how he’ll stand out.”

But Gomez says there’s no question Kasich has remained a conservative.

"That was his big breakup with the Tea Party. It's also become, though, the keystone of his presidential campaign."

“Fiscally he’s a strong conservative. His budgeting has been to lower income taxes and at the same time this has put lots more burdens on local communities. Or at least that’s what the local communities will tell you. ... He’s several times tried to increase or broaden the sales tax in Ohio, which has outraged populists even on the right but which supply-side economists will tell you is fiscally conservative and responsible.

“Socially, he remains a pro-life, anti-abortion governor. He does have exceptions for rape and incest and when the mother’s health is in jeopardy or life is in jeopardy. But he is still very much anti-abortion.

“He remains opposed to same-sex marriage, although he says that the Supreme Court has spoken and -- to sort signal his acceptance -- talk about how he’s been I a gay wedding in the last year for two of his close friends.”

“I think the bigger point here is John Kasich is a conservative, and he’d be very happy for your listeners to know he is a conservative  -- especially now that he’s competing in the South.

But the context of the party itself has shifted. People who were considered  conservative 15-20 years ago are now considered squishy and moderate-to-liberal.”

The latest Quinnipiac national poll released this week shows Gov. Kasich would beat Hillary Clinton and be edged by Bernie Sanders in a head-to-head matchup if it were held today.

M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.