COLUMBUS, OHIO — Gov. John Kasich finds himself in a peculiar situation these days. He’s responsible for helping to safeguard a Republican convention he will not speak at, a nominee he will not support and an arena he probably will not step foot in.
“It is odd, isn’t it?” Kasich says. “It’s going to be strange.”
Even stranger: When Kasich arrives Sunday in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, he will be the one leading Hillary Clinton in a half-dozen battleground states — not presumptive nominee Donald Trump — according to a recent Ballotpedia poll. “I told somebody I should’ve quit earlier — I might have won!” he says, laughing, during a relaxed interview at the governor’s mansion in Columbus.
Things aren’t going so bad for a guy who dropped out of the presidential race in May, having won just one state — his own — and who some Republicans see as a bit too self-righteous and self-
focused. Kasich left the race with a high favorable rating among voters and has come to symbolize the anti-Trump faction of the party. With the convention approaching, the media is clamoring at his door, and his team can see the 2020 presidential election clearly on the horizon.
Led by political consultant John Weaver, Kasich’s advisers are very aware that he is having a moment in the spotlight, and they are not wasting a minute. Soon, he’ll head to New York to pitch to publishers a book proposal about the 2016 campaign and his message of “Two Paths,” contrasting Trump’s doomsday talk with his positive approach. The plan is to roll out the book in town halls across the country. His political 501(c)(4) is also being retooled to allow him to campaign for Republicans other than Trump and to promote the issues and values that are important to him.
“I’m not shutting my political operation down,” the governor and former congressman says. “I’m not closing any doors. But my focus right now is going to be on the House, the Senate, and the down-ticket here in my state.”
As for next week in Cleveland, he will be quite conspicuous — zipping to events and doing ample media in his parallel political universe. As the state’s chief executive, he will receive high-level security briefings at the command center twice daily. On Tuesday, Kasich will throw his own high-profile party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his supporters.
But what you’ll never see is Kasich in the same picture frame with Donald Trump. In addition to publicly refusing to support Trump, Weaver says that Kasich rebuffed multiple overtures in May from Team Trump to join the ticket. “He was not interested,” says Weaver. A senior official with the Trump campaign on Sunday denied that any overtures were made to Kasich about being Trump’s running mate. “We made overtures to bring him on board and get him to keep his pledge” to support the nominee, said the official.
Still, Kasich has figured out how to remain relevant, visible and loyal to his party, while separating himself from a man he believes is dangerous for America. He feels no obligation to help Trump win Ohio, a crucial battleground state. “It’s not on me,” says the governor, who enjoys a 58 percent job approval rating. “If he was to lose Ohio and lose the election and people would blame me, that’s just life.”
Nonetheless, Kasich is concerned that Trump will take down the Ohio Republican Party with him, so he plans to campaign aggressively for others, including Sen. Rob Portman, who is in a tough race with Democrat Ted Strickland, a former governor. He will also campaign for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), he says.
Kasich, 64, says repeatedly during an hour-long interview that he is happy, at peace, and a better man for having gone through the grueling presidential campaign.
He tries not to overtly criticize Trump, but it’s hard for him to hide his disapproval. He will acknowledge that Trump tapped into voter anger — but he accuses the brash real estate mogul of exploiting it, rather than resolving it.
“What he tapped into is: ‘The reason you don’t have a job is because some Mexican took it, and the reason you don’t have a job is because of the Chinese. And, by the way, America’s getting screwed. We never win anything.’ That’s no message,” Kasich says.
“That’s why I haven’t endorsed him. He feeds into people’s anger. . . . He doesn’t provide a way forward. . . . It’s just ‘trust me.’ I don’t trust any politician to tell you the truth.”
Next to Trump, Kasich saves his harshest words for Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, whom he assails for crowning Trump the presumptive nominee in a tweet after the businessman won the Indiana primary on May 3 and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) quit the race.
“What Priebus did was dead wrong, after Indiana, declaring Trump the nominee,” Kasich says, barely hiding his disgust. “I was still in it and I think he dissed me, and I think it’s inappropriate. I haven’t spoken to him. I don’t think there’s any point to it. I don’t even understand what he was doing. It was amateur hour for him.” Kasich left the race the next day. A spokesman for Priebus said Sunday that the party chairman was only stating the obvious. “It’s simple math,” said the spokesman.
No Republican has ever become president without winning Ohio, and Kasich and other state officials don’t think Trump is well-positioned to win here with his current message. In addition, Trump has been slow to build a ground operation. Although Ohio registered 1 million new Republican voters before the primary, exit polls showed many of those registered in order to vote for Kasich — not Trump.
“We’ve made no secret that the message has to be one of unifying and not dividing people,” says Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, who talks to Trump.
And without that, Kasich does not see a path to a Trump victory in the general election. “Well, if you have trouble with Hispanics, if you have trouble with African Americans, if you have trouble with women,” he says. “I think they have these challenges, and I think they know it and they have to deal with it.”
So why didn’t the Ohio governor take off during the primaries, given his standing today? Political operatives maintain he entered the race too late, with low name recognition nationally and couldn’t raise the resources to get his message out.
Kasich also faults the media — which he says created Trump and never gave him the time of day. “We never got the kind of attention that traditionally candidates have gotten when they did well,” Kasich laments, citing his second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
“It was pretty remarkable,” Kasich says. “But what happened when that was over? Nothing. . . . After New Hampshire, we should have had enormous attention. The media just basically discounted me.”
Kasich has said that he might consider supporting Trump if his divisiveness and name-calling came to an end. But he says Trump’s rhetoric seems to have gotten worse.
“I was talking to a guy yesterday. He’s like, ‘Well, you need to be for Trump.’ What did they think my message was? Did they think it was just politics? This is stuff I feel really strongly about. My family feels stronger than I do about it.”
Citing Trump’s “attacks on women,” Kasich says his wife, Karen, and twin daughters are anti-Trump. “My girls are 16, so they can’t vote, but believe me, there’s no way he would get their vote.”
Asked how he would go about rebuilding his fractured party should Trump lose the election, he says, “I’m more worried about my country than I’m worried about my party right now.”
“Is all the immigration right? Of course it isn’t. But are we anti-immigrant? Of course not. Are we a party that says based on a religious test that somehow you’re not welcome? That’s not my party. . . . So the party has lost its way.”
He also faults Trump for his strident anti-trade position. “We need to be a party that favors trade. Are all the trade deals good? Obviously not. I’ve never been the greatest free-trade person, but I do realize that if you and I get into a trading situation, personally — we become closer. We sit down and we talk. It creates a relationship. If all of a sudden we shut that off, it isn’t good.”
Kasich was one of the first of many party leaders to take a pass on attending the convention. The list gets longer every day. “I cannot speak as to why anybody else is doing what they’re doing,” he says. “I’m just doing what I think is the right thing to do, based on my campaign, what I feel about the country, reflecting the views of my family. I’ll navigate through it.”
In the one and only telephone conversation he had with Trump after he left the race, Kasich said, he told the businessman that they were too different politically and personally for Kasich to support him. He asked Trump to read his “Two Paths” speech and let him know what he thought. He hasn’t heard back. Says Kasich with a shrug, “He wasn’t going to read my speech.”