Can John Kasich survive in Ohio?

There will be no rematch next year between Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and former governor Ted Strickland (D), after Strickland announced Tuesday that he won’t be seeking his old job in 2014.

With the former governor removed from the equation, a race that was already shaping up as a referendum on Kasich stands to be even more about him.

It's the kind of fight both sides believe they can win right now.


Ohio Gov. John Kasich (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Democrats remain optimistic about their odds of unseating a Republican whose agenda suffered a major setback at the polls in 2011. Meanwhile, Kasich’s allies have been energized by a dramatic political rebound that has breathed new life into the governor’s prospects during the past few months.

In truth, both parties have reasons for optimism at this early stage.

Let’s start with the Democrats. Strickland would likely have cleared the Democratic field had he opted to make a bid. Without him in the picture, the race is more fluid. But one potential candidate has emerged ahead of the pack: Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.

FitzGerald has an intriguing profile. He’s a former FBI special agent who served as the mayor of Lakewood. He’s just 44, and heads the most populous county in Ohio and its biggest Democratic stronghold.

“I’ve been meeting with people all across the state and that will be accelerated a little bit now,” FitzGerald told the Columbus Dispatch after Strickland’s announcement. “I’ve talked with some people about getting a team together to run my campaign for governor, but I have a lot of things to consider and it’s still too early to say anything more.”

On the other side stands Kasich, whose approval rating was once mired in the low 30s during a contentious fight over a controversial measure to curb collective bargaining for public workers.

But lately, things have been looking up for the Republican. A September Washington Post poll showed that Kasich’s approval rating stood above 50 percent. A December Quinnipiac University poll showed that 42 percent approved of the job he was doing, with 35 percent disapproving – the best numbers Kasich has seen in a Quinnipiac poll since his inauguration.

Kasich was dealt a major setback when voters overturned his law curbing collective bargaining in 2011. But it wasn't enough to permanently sink his brand. Some Republicans attribute Kaisch's ascent in the polls to a simple factor: time. As in, his  policies have had more time to sink in.

Projecting ahead to the 2014 race, we may hear Kasich make some of the same arguments about the strength of the state that President Obama’s campaign did in 2012 en route to a two-point win there. Ohio’s unemployment rate is below the national average, and polling shows voters believe the economy is getting better. While Obama’s campaign touted the success of the auto bailout in the state in 2012, Kasich will likely credit his own policies for Ohio's economic health.

Even as his approval rating has improved, Kasich remains vulnerable. In the same Quinnipiac poll that showed him hitting his high-water mark in terms of job approval, a plurality said the governor does not deserve to be reelected.

Kasich clearly has work to do. But so do Democrats, beginning with finding a candidate. Aside from FitzGerald, other potential candidates being mentioned include Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray and Rep. Tim Ryan. If FitzGerald ends up as the candidate Democrats rally around, he’ll have his work cut out for him building name ID.

It’s impossible to predict what the political climate in Ohio will be like in the fall of 2014, or what will happen between now and then. But at this point, at least, the state that received so much attention in the 2012 campaign looks like fertile ground for another competitive statewide contest in 2014.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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Chris Cillizza · January 8, 2013