NEW LONDON, N.H. — Outside the town hall, the voter backlash against professional politicians was raging. Inside, Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) was talking about how he has always wanted to be president. With no notes, Kasich described the friendship, the letter and the plane ticket that got an 18-year-old kid to the waiting room outside President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office.
“The security guy walks up to me and says, ‘You get five minutes alone with the president of the United States,’ ” said Kasich, pacing the floor and wearing a loud white-and-purple golf shirt. “Wow! Wow, right? Really unbelievable! I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. I’ve got a new shirt, a new tie, new pants. I’m not comin’ out in five lousy minutes!”
Kasich’s audience, packed with retirees who remembered Nixon, rumbled with laughter. “Five minutes!” Kasich said. “What can you do in five minutes? They open up the door, the president greets me, and I spend 20 minutes alone with him. Eighteen years old.”
Donald Trump derides the “losers” who have captured America’s government. Onetime front-runner Jeb Bush attacks the reality show star as insufficiently conservative. Kasich is trying something else, telling voters that, yes, he’s a politician and a good one. Four years in the Ohio Senate, 18 years in Congress, five years as governor, most of them good.
He peppers his stories with references to the “great minds” he met in Washington. He praises John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor, and his namesake son, a former senator who was on hand at every stop of a two-day swing. Kasich offers granular detail about how he won elections, from his bid for state senator (“when I was 24, 25 years old”) to his landslide 2014 reelection over a Democrat undone by scandals (“pretty cool”).
“When I was a kid, I used to like to go up into the courthouse and listen to lawyers argue,” Kasich told nearly a hundred Republicans at a Tuesday night house party hosted by uncommitted, moderate donors. “Surprise! I became a politician, right?”
At the moment, Kasich is the only career politician in the Republican field whose presidential campaign isn’t tumbling in the polls. An average of public surveys from RealClearPolitics puts Kasich at 12.7 percent in New Hampshire, far behind Trump but ahead of everyone else. Kasich’s New Hampshire focus, however, has yet to catch on nationally. In a Monmouth University poll released Thursday, Kasich was stuck at 2 percent, tied for ninth place.
Rival campaigns, most of which are holding off on ad buys, credit the $4 million that Kasich and an allied super PAC have already spent on commercials in New Hampshire. “Have you seen the one with the moon landing?” Kasich asked two of his town hall audiences. Many had, indeed, seen the ad about how then-Congressman John Kasich helped balance the budget for the first time since the 1969 moon landing.
But the people crowding Kasich’s town halls are buying into a message, not an image. Kasich is running as a “pragmatist,” the kind of candidate who will invite members of the anti-poverty ONE Campaign to an event so he can talk about his backing of international anti-AIDS funding.
In John Kasich’s America, politics can be noble, Washington can work — has worked recently, actually — and undocumented immigrants should be “legalized.” His countrymen aren’t about to “drive around in vans, rounding up their neighbors.” Americans were good people. Policy grew from there.
“How many kids have you told: ‘Kid, stay off the drugs,’ ” Kasich asked his New London audience. “How many people do we mentor and give a pat on the back? How many widows could we visit so that they’re not all alone? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”
The audiences who cheered that this week were packed with the moderate voters who matter in New Hampshire more than any other state. At a Wednesday morning stop at Robie’s General Store in Hooksett, one voter stood, said that Kasich was “a refreshing kind of Republican,” then sat down. Noreen and Steven Christiansen asked no questions but were thankful for a moderate alternative.
“I’m so tired of the Christian right overpowering everything,” said Noreen Christiansen, 61. “I do think we need someone more moderate in there to prevent that. Jeb probably would have been a good choice before [his brother] George, but I don’t think he is now.”
“He doesn’t seem to have any kind of charisma going for him,” said Steven Christiansen, 70, with a sigh.
Kasich had plenty, and seemingly none of Bush’s frailties or enemies. While many of the voters at Kasich’s events loathed Trump, the ones who liked him said the Ohio governor had the same skills. Trump, said 85-year-old Alton Walker, had the ability to make people negotiate, and so did Kasich. He spoke without notes, his answers studded with aphorisms both homegrown (a refrain that he’ll “cry for 10 minutes, then be fine” if he loses) and borrowed from pop culture.
“In Ohio, we have peace in the valley,” he said at New England College, quoting Elvis to make a point about the state’s labor practices. “We have organized labor, and we have businesses.”
That answer came after an independent voter — whose white beard inspired Kasich to call him “Colonel Sanders” — asked whether Kasich was too hard on labor. Kasich’s answer demonstrated just how uninterested he was in campaigning from the right. In 2011, both Ohio and Wisconsin passed new labor laws that restricted collective bargaining rights for public employees. Wisconsin’s law, which exempted police and firefighters, survived several political assaults and became the basis for Gov. Scott Walker’s presidential bid. Ohio’s law, SB5, exempted no one and was undone by a voter referendum.
Kasich’s refusal to revisit the issue changed his governorship. That, and the expansion of Medicaid that he defends in compassionate, religious terms, led the influential conservative author and commentator Mark Levin to label him a “big spending RINO goofball.”
That was one of the kinder epithets. But this was September 2015, and no one was taking a whack at Kasich over any of it. In an interview after his New England College event, Kasich portrayed the SB5 defeat as a valuable learning experience.
“In our state, I think we’ve had two major [labor] strikes,” Kasich said in an interview. “We don’t have a problem. When you have a situation where people work together, that’s good. The whole [situation] early on, on SB5 — that’s a whole lot of stuff, including the fact that if we’d done it later we’d have done it quite differently. It’s a long story, but at the end of the day, when people speak out clearly, you’ve got to listen to them.”
Asked how, post-SB5, Kasich looked at his possible presidential appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, he only gently hinted at conservatism. “I’d want the NLRB to have great balance,” he said, “and to recognize that job creation is the most important moral imperative.”
This spoonful-of-sugar approach to conservatism has crept into many of Kasich’s answers. At several stops, Kasich told voters that he would want to let younger people put “a small portion” of their Social Security payments into a market fund. That idea had defined or immolated other campaigns; Kasich, who worked for Lehman Brothers after his stint in the House of Representatives, might be especially vulnerable to attack.
But he was saying it anyway. Kasich understood why voters mistrusted Wall Street. “There’s an element of greed there,” he said in the interview, “and people sense that.”
Entitlement reform, like many of Kasich’s ideas, was an impossible-looking task that could be done because — well, John Kasich was John Kasich. Asked why George W. Bush’s 2005 push for Social Security privatization failed, Kasich noted that his own plan had been presented but not used.
“I don’t think they ever did anything, did they?” Kasich said.
Reminded of Bush’s months-long political campaign, which included town halls in swing states and personal pressure on Democratic senators, Kasich explained that the last Republican president “never had enough Democrats involved” in the reform.
“I asked somebody who was involved with that,” Kasich said. “I said, ‘How many Democrats would go down to the White House and talk about it?’ And they said, ‘None.’ ”
In a field of candidates rushing to get to one another’s right — on a day when many were announcing solidarity with a Kentucky county clerk’s refusal to issue gay marriage licenses — Kasich had no problem sounding like the pragmatist. He could do that even if he made Democrats know when they were being annoying. At Robie’s General Store, Kasich’s first question came from Tina Paquette, 60, who unfolded a piece of paper and read a lengthy jeremiad about SB5 and Ohio’s economy.
“Jobs were eliminated for some 4,000 people,” she said. “They were replaced by lower-paying jobs, and, uh — other people have lost their jobs.”
An irritated audience member yelled for her to ask a question.
“Let Hillary finish!” Kasich said.
Paquette stood, stone-faced, as the audience cheered. Kasich quickly cleaned up the joke — “I know your name’s not Hillary” — and gave an answer.
“I think he evaded a lot of it,” Paquette said after the event. “I wasn’t too thrilled. My friends in Ohio think he’s a union buster.”
Yet even a joke at her expense, and a perceived lame answer, would not stop her from considering a vote for Kasich. He seemed sincere, after all.
“I’m not leaning toward a Democrat this year,” said Paquette, who voted for President Obama in 2012. “I do like his boldness.”