Republican Midwest governors potentially running as 2016 presidential candidates are not in short supply. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Mike Pence of Indiana are all plausible candidates, although it isn’t clear which, if any, may run. With the exception of Pence, all face reelection this year, which may somewhat impede their ability to travel outside the state, generate national media attention and/or prepare for a national campaign. Each can claim executive experience and distance from dysfunctional Washington, D.C., but each faces challenges as well.
Among these governors, Walker has had the lion’s share of attention, in part because of his victory in the recall effort and in part because of his deliberate effort to spend more time with national media. It is hard to find someone in GOP circles who doesn’t like him or think he’s a solid conservative reformer. His down-to-earth appeal and success in a blue-purple state suggest he’d do well in a general election. Questions remain about the caliber of his staff, his gravitas and his familiarity with foreign policy. But for now he seems more likely to run than fellow Wisconsinite Rep. Paul Ryan, and he’d start the race with substantial good will from all factions of the GOP. Kasich has become a more visible figure lately, appearing on a Sunday show this past weekend, for example. His popularity has rebounded, along with his state’s economic fortunes. He can claim a strong record on jobs, education and government reform. However, he lost a state proposition on a right-to-work proposal, later acknowledging that he hadn’t sufficiently laid the groundwork for the measure. He also chose to expand Medicaid, to the dismay of some hard-line conservatives, but he has an explanation. On Sunday, he had this exchange with Chris Wallace:
WALLACE: Let’s talk about another bump. On — and maybe you don’t think that’s a bump — on Obamacare, you declined setting up a state exchange, leaving that to the feds. On the other hand, you have agreed to accept the money to expand Medicaid over the objections of the majority, Republican majority, in your state legislature. How do you explain those different actions?
KASICH: Well, Chris, first of all, I don’t think it was over the objection of the majority of Republicans. Had there been a vote, I think it would have passed. But I have a chance to bring back $14 billion in Ohio dollars back to Ohio to do what? To strengthen our local communities as they treat the most significant problem of drug addiction and the problem of mental illness. Now, I guess I could leave that money in Washington and leave it to those congressmen and senators to spend it wisely. Unfortunately, I was there for 18 years. And I know what they do with that money. I get it back to Ohio to solve some of the most vexing problems. See, my philosophy is this, Chris. As the state does better and gets stronger economically, we must help people who live in the shadows. The people who have drug addictions, we have to get them rehabbed. The people who have mental illness. Those two groups of people should not be sitting in our jails and our prisons. That’s unconscionable in our state. And so, it’s two, it’s a two-pronged strategy. Continue to grow the state. Continue to make it stronger and stronger economically. And help to lift people out of the ditch where they are, bring them into the mainstream and give them an opportunity to realize their God-given purpose. I think it’s entirely consistent with conservative and Republican philosophy. And I’m really pleased we’re doing it because there are many people in Ohio now whose lives, frankly, will be in a position of being able to move forward.
That could probably use some tightening, but his days as a host on Fox News have certainly given him practice on air. In Congress, he was known primarily as a budget hawk, but he also defended the Pentagon against proposed cuts during the Clinton presidency. He has mellowed somewhat since the days on the Hill when he seemed like an over-caffeinated version of Jack Kemp. (A recent RGA ad highlights how his blue collar persona has benefited with maturity.)
Then there is Snyder, who delivered the GOP weekly video/radio address last week. His pronounced Michigan accent and easy-going personality provide a nice contrast to D.C. pols who sound pretty much alike. His record on growth, championing (successfully) right-to-work legislation and job creation gives him among the best resumes in the country. However, he has perhaps the least exposure on the national stage of the Midwest governors and no prior foreign policy experience. As of yet he does not have a national fundraising network. He comes across as a practical business person, which can cut both ways. Is he too much like Mitt Romney or the right blend of pragmatism and conservatism?
And then there is the governor who could be the sleeper in the race. Mike Pence was a conservative favorite in the House for a decade. His hawkish views on foreign policy are well-suited to the challenges a post-Obama president will face. It is noteworthy that in 2009 he was already criticizing the president for pulling missile defense systems out of Eastern Europe. That same year he also blasted the president for failure to support the Green Revolution in Iran. (“Their cries for human rights were carried on signs written in English intended for a watching world. Sadly, the Iranian government responded with a violent crackdown on the dissidents. President Obama’s response was to assure the Ayatollah that we would not ‘meddle.’ The week before violence broke out in Iran, President Obama spoke eloquently about the fundamental rights of all individuals to have a say in how they are governed. But as Iran violated these very human rights, President Obama remained silent, missing an opportunity to carry real hope to thousands of helpless Iranians.”) Having succeeded Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, his state was in far better shape than some of his neighbors; nevertheless, in his state of the state address this January, he rolled out a firmly conservative agenda for tax cuts, retention of Indiana’s own health-care system for the poor (in lieu of expanding traditional Medicaid) and school reform.
Any one of these candidates could emerge from the pack in 2014. All have more executive experience and more concrete accomplishments than GOP senators eyeing the race. None is seen as an extreme ideologue; none would be an anathema to any segment of the party. All are viewed as pro-life stalwarts. Key will be putting together a presidential-quality staff, including a national fundraising network, projecting presidential gravitas (and the ability to beat Hillary Clinton) and making the case why he — as opposed to the other qualified GOP governors — would be the best pick for the party.