This post has been updated.
This week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a five-part series about Ohio Gov. John Kasich. It covers his entire career, his backstory, his current reelection campaign and how all of it might fit into a potential 2016 presidential bid. It's worth your time to read the whole thing; it's an in-depth look at a politician from the people who have been covering him for years. Here are some of the most interesting tidbits -- and oddest bits of trivia from the series, plus a few things that it got us thinking about as well.
First things first: Does the Cleveland Plain Dealer think Kasich will run? In 1997, Kasich told the Columbus Dispatch, "I'm just really kind of blown away that my name is being mentioned," when asked about whispers of his presidential ambitions. Three years later, he was in the race. He lost, but told the Columbus Dispatch in 2011, "I will run for president again."
In March 2014, Kasich told a local TV station that asked whether he would run for president in 2016, "I'm sorry -- I'm just not interested in it." Later in the month, he was giving a speech in front of presidential bankroller Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas. The Plain Dealer interprets this as showing that "despite his demurrals, Kasich seemed happy to be a part of the 2016 conversation."
However, his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas also underscored the fact that he faces a significant name recognition disadvantage.
"I thought Kucini – I mean Kasich – was excellent," a woman told me as she left the ballroom. She had confused Kasich with Dennis Kucinich, the liberal former congressman from Cleveland and, like Kasich, a former long-shot candidate for president.
Kasich — who is also working on his second book — needs to win re-election in 2014 if he indeed wants the 2016 speculation to continue. His approval rating is currently around 56 percent — the highest it's been since he got elected. Lowering unemployment in the state probably has helped his standing quite a bit. The governor currently has a double digit lead over his Democratic opponent, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. Sixty-eight percent of Ohioans haven't heard enough about FitzGerald — who has never run for state office— to form an opinion, so who knows how the race could change in upcoming months as the Democrat gets better known. At the end of April, Kasich had $8.5 million in the bank for his campaign. FitzGerald has $1.5 million, but may win the financial support of many unions who are displeased with Kasich's first term. FitzGerald has also been trying to use the presidential buzz to his advantage, saying that if Ohio elects Kasich again, he might be gone in two years.
At the June 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago, Kasich tied with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman in a vice-presidential straw poll. They both received 2 percent of the vote. In September 2013, Kasich received at least one vote in the Mackinac straw poll in Michigan. He received 1 percent of the vote in the 2014 CPAC straw poll.
Ohio may be wondering about Kasich's presidential ambitions, but most other conservatives in the country appear not to be.
Like nearly all successful politicians, Kasich has that crucial anecdote to share about his formative political experience in college.
Kasich’s arrival at OSU has become worthy of a tall tale. Seething over a dorm citation, the freshman Kasich badgered his way into the office of the university president, Novice Fawcett. Then, so the story goes, he invited himself to Fawcett’s meeting the following day at the White House with President Richard Nixon. Fawcett refused to let Kasich tag along, but he agreed to deliver a letter.
While others of his generation were protesting Nixon, Kasich was plying him with encouragement and a friendly critique. Boldly, according to a 1999 profile by the Columbus Dispatch, he offered to “make myself available” should Nixon want even more advice from an 18-year-old college kid in Ohio.
Nixon accepted. For 20 minutes on Dec. 22, 1970, president and future candidate for president huddled inside the Oval Office.
“The bad news,” reflected Kasich in “Stand for Something,” his 2006 book, “is I would go on to spend 18 years in Congress, and if you go back and add up all the time I spent alone in the Oval Office with various presidents, you’ll see it doesn’t come close to those 20 minutes. I guess I peaked out at the age of 18. That’s when I should have retired.”
In 1994, he was one of 46 Republicans who voted for an assault weapons ban. He was also in favor of background checks at gun shows. The National Rifle Association did not endorse him during his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
Kasich is a long time fan of balanced budgets and firm resistance to federal spending. As the House Budget Committee chair, he played a role in the 1995 government shutdown, which he calls “one of the greatest moments of my career." Kasich has repeatedly called for a federal balanced budget amendment to be added to the U.S. Constitution (His Democratic opponent in the 2014 gubernatorial race, Ed FitzGerald, made sure to unearth Kasich's role in the last government shutdown during last fall's remake.) "As a direct result of that government shutdown in 1995, we wrote a bill that provided for the first balanced budget in nearly 40 years and allowed us to pay down the largest chunk of our staggering national debt in the history of this country.”
The Wall Street Journal, which published an editorial titled, "William Jefferson Kasich," and many of his fellow Republicans, were not a fan of his budget tactics. Many New Democrats, on the other hand, liked him very much. Clinton staffer Leon Panetta told the Boston Globe in 1998, “The refreshing part is that he is really not caught up in ideological themes that other Republican candidates mutter in order to protect their right-wing base.” Much of the Republican establishment came to the same conclusion, eventually. The Weekly Standard published a profile about Kasich in 1997, writing, “Kasich has never been particularly comfortable with the party’s right wing; he is not, ideologically or temperamentally, a movement guy. He prefers to call himself a populist.” In 1997, the Washington Post wrote a profile of Kasich, which tried to unpack the odd amalgam of political traits he had accrued.
Mix Robert F. Kennedy's fire in the belly, Ronald Reagan's sunny disposition and the friskiness of a lovable puppy and you begin to get a taste for why conservative activists enthuse about this otherwise obscure Budget Committee chairman.
It might not have worked in 2000, but all of these summations of Kasich's character sound a whole lot like what the Republican elite would like to see on their 2016 ticket. However, Kasich's politics changed markedly when he returned to politics in 2010. After a stint at Lehman Brothers and on Fox News, Kasich ran in the 2010 Ohio gubernatorial race. He looked a bit more conservative than he did the last time he campaigned. When he announced his running mate, state auditor Mary Taylor, he said, "I think I was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party."
In 2013, he began to wander back to his old ways, expanding Medicaid in Ohio and trying to tax oil and gas companies more, in order to take advantage of the fracking boom. His latest campaign ads for the 2014 gubernatorial race don't even mention he is a Republican. On the other hand, Democrats are displeased with his stances on same-sex marriage, voting rights and reproductive rights. His friend Jo Ann Davidson, who he appointed to the Ohio Casino Control Commission, told the Plain Dealer, "Some people don't believe he's as conservative as they would like him to be, some think he's more conservative than they would like him to be. That probably means he's just about right.
Soon after Kasich took office, he got some heat for only hiring white people to serve in his Cabinet — the first governor to do so since 1962. Here's an graphic the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran at the time.
He responded to the criticism by saying, "I don't look at things from the standpoint of any of these sort of metrics that people tend to focus on, race or age, or any of those things. It's not the way I look at those things. I want the best possible team I can get, and hopefully we will be in a position that we are fully diverse as we go forward. But I can't say I need to find somebody to fit this metric, not when I am trying to get a state that is in deep trouble out of trouble." Democrats in the state legislature met with Kasich, asking him to build a more diverse administration. He told them, "I'm not going to hire your people," a remark which his spokesperson said was referring to Democrats, but did not go over well in Ohio politics. Kasich later hired a few African-American directors.
His fight with public unions in 2011 sent his approval ratings tanking — his ratings were in the 30s and 40s nearly all year. On March 31, 2011, he signed SB 5 -- a bill limiting collective bargaining -- into law. Labor unions got it on the ballot that November, and 62 percent of voters chose to repeal it. Kasich isn't the only governor with a troubled past with unions potentially eyeing 2016. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker angered unions in his state so much that they tried to recall him in 2012. Kasich has tried to distance himself from SB 5 since, but his opponents have continued to remind voters that he supported the bill enthusiastically at the start.
The series notes, "Without prompting, nearly every Kasich friend or adviser interviewed for this article noted that his temperament is his greatest liability."
Kasich once got sassy with a constituent who called him a “backwoodsy redneck" after he (sarcastically) called Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek "noted agricultural experts” during a 1985 congressional hearing. (In 1982, Kasich won a House race in Ohio's 12th District.) He responded, "I would recommend you enroll in a remedial course on protocol before writing any more advisory letters to your elected officials. Or better yet, refrain from writing." He soon after apologized.
Kasich hates the Coen Brothers' movie "Fargo." HATES.
“It was billed as a comedy,” Kasich wrote in his 2006 book, “but it wasn’t funny.” Kasich launched a one-man campaign to force Blockbuster to remove “Fargo” from its shelves.
George F. Will later wrote in 1997 about Kasich's crusade.
Pity the fellow who was working at the Blockbuster store when John Kasich spotted a cassette of "Fargo." The people who distribute Academy Award nominations like that movie, but the congressman from Columbus, Ohio, emphatically - all his judgments are emphatic - does not. The Blockbuster fellow tried a Nuremberg defense - "I'm just the store manager" - but Kasich would have none of it, telling him that at least the movie should be labeled for gratuitous violence.
There, in a nutshell, is why the effervescent Republican is attracting interest as, and is clearly interested in becoming, a presidential candidate. He is not interested in running in 1998 for the Senate seat now held by John Glenn. Time is too short for such middling steps.He is (oxymoronically, some would say) a spontaneous politician and (another oxymoron) a soulful Republican. He likes the rock music of Counting Crows and deplores the condition of the culture.
Speaking of the Counting Crows, Kasich has made '80s and '90s music an essential part of his campaigning strategy. In 1998, he went on a "Back in Black" tour around Ohio, advertising his newly brokered budget deal. During his less-than-successful presidential bid in 2000 -- if there is more than one compassionate conservative in a presidential party, the one with a father who was already president, and all the money, will win (also, being the first to come up with the phrase compassionate conservatism helps) -- he played a lot of Pearl Jam, Bush, Depeche Mode, Radiohead, the Foo Fighters and the Verve. The San Francisco Chronicle called him the "only member of Congress to be asked to leave the stage of a Grateful Dead concert." Now, however, Kasich's pop culture references are limited mainly to Taylor Swift.
During one of Kasich's first campaign events in New Hampshire during the 2000 presidential campaign, he ended up saying a eulogy for a dog.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Gov. John Kasich expanded Medicare in his state. In fact, he expanded the state's Medicaid program.