Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who ran as a sunny, center-right “prince of light and hope” but won only his home-state primary, bowed out of the presidential race Wednesday with a reflective speech in Columbus.
“Throughout this campaign, I said the Lord may have another purpose for me,” Kasich said. “As I suspend my campaign today, I have renewed faith, deeper faith, that the Lord will show me the way forward and purpose for my life.”
The departure fully clears the field for front-runner Donald Trump to become the GOP nominee. Another rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), ended his bid Tuesday night.
Kasich, 63, entered the race with an impressive résumé: 18 years in the House, where he built a reputation as a budget cutter; a stint as a Fox News Channel host; and five years as the popular governor of a presidential swing state. He ran as a pragmatic conservative, one who had defied his own party and expanded Medicaid, the federal health-care program for the poor, in Ohio.
“People have accused me of, at times, having too big a heart,” Kasich said in one GOP debate.
That centrist appeal made him stand out in a year when candidates scrambled to the right. In polls, Kasich seemed like the GOP’s most formidable general-election candidate.
But he never got there.
Kasich was the last serious candidate to enter the race, one he had spent 16 years preparing for. In 1999, as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, he had run for president on the bipartisan success of balancing the nation’s books for the first time since the 1960s. He flamed out quickly and later admitted to New Hampshire audiences that he “wasn’t ready” for the big job.
Seemingly done with politics, he took a job at Lehman Brothers and hosted Fox News’s “Heartland,” which spotlighted inspirational stories amid discussions of politics. He wrote three books in the same vein. In 2010, with a voter backlash creating an unexpected opportunity in Ohio, he ran against Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and won. In 2014, after his Democratic opponent was felled by scandal, he won reelection in a landslide.
That encouraged Kasich to make another run for the White House — as did the failure of former Florida governor Jeb Bush to gain any traction. Suddenly, a politician known by his foes for sarcasm and a short attention span was running as an optimistic party savior.
The new Kasich, like the one who had hosted “Heartland,” was part candidate and part life coach. Pacing around a stage in shirt sleeves and chinos, Kasich would frequently single out young people in the audience and give them impromptu life lessons.
“God made you special,” he said at one of his last town halls, in Connecticut. “Do you know that? Did anyone ever tell you that? There’s never been anybody like you, and there never will be anyone like you again. You were put here for a purpose.”
That message, a disastrous debate for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and a surge from independent voters helped Kasich place second in New Hampshire’s primary. By the end of February, he was the last Republican governor in the race.
The high point of Kasich’s campaign came on March 15, when he won the Ohio primary. He was showered in confetti and promised to return to Ohio this fall as the GOP nominee.
“I’m getting ready to rent a covered wagon,” he said then. “We’re going to have a big sail and have the wind blow us to the Rocky Mountains and over the mountains to California.”
It was an odd metaphor but an apt one. After Ohio, Kasich performed about as well as somebody trying to cross the Rockies in a sail-powered wagon.
Kasich made odd strategic choices. He campaigned in Utah, even though rival Cruz was expected to dominate there — and did, as the slow-building #NeverTrump movement warned Kasich that he was splitting the vote. Kasich campaigned in New York, the home turf of rival Trump, and hurt his own cause when he seemed to explain Judaism to Jewish voters in Brooklyn.
In the end, Kasich was trounced in the East Coast states where he was expected to do best. In six primaries, he won just a single county: Manhattan.
The rest all went to Trump. Having argued that he could slow Trump down in states where Cruz was toxic, he was right only about Cruz. The mogul soon applied one of his famous nicknames to Kasich: “One-for-38.”
At each stop, Kasich promised not to take “the low road to the White House.” One of his most reliable applause lines, it frequently neutralized him as a potential critic of Trump. The day he won Ohio, he told reporters that he had been watching video clips of women reading insulting Trump quotes (a product of the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC) and would have “something to say about it” soon.
He never mentioned the quotes again. In Indiana, Kasich first appeared to agree to a deal with Cruz, in which Kasich would withdraw and leave Cruz to face Trump alone. In turn, Kasich would not be challenged by Cruz in two later and less-critical states, Oregon and New Mexico.
But Kasich appeared to undercut that deal quickly by saying that his supporters in Indiana should not shift their votes. “I’ve never told them not to vote for me, they ought to vote for me,” he said. Strategists for both camps were both convinced that they had snookered the other. Cruz even chided reporters for calling the deal an “alliance,” as it was clear that Indiana voters had turned on it.
For weeks, it had been clear that Kasich could not clinch the Republican nomination with the delegates still available to be won in primaries. In fact, even as the race dwindled to three active candidates, Kasich was in fourth place — with fewer delegates than Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who had dropped out weeks earlier.
Fundraising was also a problem: The governor raised less than $17 million in all by the end of March, forcing him to run a lean campaign. He began April with just $1.1 million in the bank. (Cruz, by comparison, raised nearly $80 million.)
Because of his meager fundraising, Kasich has leaned heavily on two super PACs, which together brought in more than $26 million and financed much of his television advertising.
Kasich’s last hope was that Trump also would be denied 1,237 delegates and that he would be chosen in an open party convention. By late April, his delegate-hunters were having some success in electing allies in states like Indiana and teaming up with Cruz forces to win delegates in Arizona.
On Wednesday morning, the delegate team was still at work when the word came in: The campaign was over. Kasich had actually boarded the plane that was set to take him to Washington for a news conference and fundraiser. Then, he had huddled with aides, and decided to stay home and end the campaign. He would use his last moment in the national spotlight for one more session of life coaching, a 20-minute speech that touched on everything from the majesty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the hugs he had given at town halls.
“I believe we all need to live a life bigger than ourselves,” Kasich said. “We are, as human beings, kind of hard-wired to give someone else a lift, to give someone else an opportunity.”
Matea Gold contributed to this report.