John Kasich enters the race for the Republican presidential nomination with what should be a dream resume. Popular governor of a critical swing state. State and federal budget balancer. National security expertise. Friend to Democrats. Regular-guy appeal.
And yet the governor of Ohio started his bid Tuesday so far behind that he could end up not qualifying for the first candidate debate – which will be held in his home state Aug. 6.
Kasich, 63, becomes the 16th well-known Republican to formally enter the race. He has to catch up with rivals who already have set up slick organizations in key states and raised tens of millions of dollars.
Before a cheering crowd at Ohio State University, his alma mater, Kasich vowed to fight for the middle class, citing its disillusionment with the American dream. He cited the struggles of African-Americans and of middle-aged workers facing sudden layoffs. He’s felt the pain, he said.
He’s lived through recessions and seen terrorist attacks, and “I have become stronger for them and America has become stronger for them,” Kasich said in his trademark conversation tone. America will succeed, he said, “by staying together with our eyes on the horizon.”
Kasich insists he’s unfazed by the uphill challenge.
He’s had a string of political triumphs, notably two elections as governor of one of the nation’s most prized battleground states, the last time in a landslide. Kasich plans to stress that record.
It’s a microcosm of the country.
John Kasich describing Ohio
He also plans to talk about his legislative accomplishments, some of them unmatched among his rivals. In a video released by his SuperPAC, New Day for America, Kasich touts his record as a budget balancer in Washington and Columbus.
Kasich noted Tuesday that he’s the unique candidate with both national security and executive experience. A member of the House of Representatives from 1983 to 2001, he served on the House Armed Services Committee, with a big say in Pentagon strategy and spending. He eventually rose to be the panel’s second-ranking Republican.
Perhaps his biggest claim in Congress was as an advocate for a balanced budget on the House Budget Committee, first as a member of the minority, then as chairman after Republicans won control of the House in a 1994 landslide. After showdowns with President Bill Clinton that shut down the government, the two sides eventually settled into tense negotiations.
The federal budget ran surpluses for four straight fiscal years, starting in FY1998.
Kasich, known for being willing to work with Democrats, helped negotiate the 1997 deal that was instrumental in leading to four federal budgets with surpluses.
Democrats still praise his willingness to work with them. “He’s such a compelling figure,” said David Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
Kasich briefly flirted with a presidential bid in 1999, got nowhere and quickly exited the race. This year, he starts with more political muscle and a heftier resume, though he still has to endure the ire of conservatives who frown on his cooperating with Democrats and his agreeing to go along with Obamacare’s expansion in his state of Medicaid, the health insurance for the poor.
He also faces tough competition from the center-right bloc he’s wooing, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have been campaigning for weeks.
“Beyond geography, he really hasn’t separated himself from the others,” said David Paleologos , director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston.
Kasich pushes on. He boasts about his state’s budget, which projects 2 percent spending growth the next two years, in line with his previous budgets. He recalls how he carried 86 of the state’s 88 counties last year. He won 60 percent of the women’s vote and one in four blacks, voters Republicans have had a hard time wooing.
“There must be something that I must be doing right there in order to do that in what is one of the most pivotal states,” he said recently.
What will make or break Kasich is his personality, sometimes criticized as brash and blunt. Kasich defended his candor, recalling his McKees Rocks, Pa., roots. “We’re pretty direct where I come from,” he said of the working-class town 15 minutes from Pittsburgh.
Directness, Kasich said, will serve him well as he campaigns. “New Hampshire,” he says, “is a place where they look you squarely in the eye.”
2% Kasich’s showing, good for 11th place, in late June Suffolk University Political Research Center poll.
Voters, though, are looking into a lot of eyes. In two late June polls, Kasich had 2 percent in each, good for a 10th place tie in one and an 11th place tie in the other. Nationally, he’s close but hasn’t quite cracked the top 10, which he’ll need to do to qualify for the Aug. 6 debate in Cleveland.
Kasich said he’s not worried about what that could mean to his fledgling campaign. “I don’t make predictions,” he said.
Born: May 13, 1952, McKees Rocks, Pa.
Family: Wife, Karen. Two daughters.
Education: Ohio State University, B.A., political science, 1974.
Political career: Ohio State Legislature, 1979-82. U.S. House of Representatives, 1983-2001. House Budget Committee chairman, 1995-2001. Governor of Ohio, 2011-present.
Highlights: Helped negotiate 1997 federal balanced budget agreement. Formed presidential exploratory committee, 1999; dropped out after five months. Hosted “From the Heartland with John Kasich” on Fox News Channel, 2001-2007. Managing director, Lehman Brothers, 2001-2008. Re-elected governor in 2014 with 64 percent.