It’s been a hectic 24 hours for Brett Smith.
The 21-year old University of Georgia student has been swamped by both news outlets and messages of support since videos of his emotional hug with Republican candidate John Kasich on Thursday went viral online. His Facebook wall has been swamped with messages from family, friends and teachers sharing articles and TV segments, telling him how proud they are.
Smith may have unintentionally given his candidate a crucial push into the spotlight a day before Saturday’s primary. During a presidential race marked by harsh rhetoric and personal attacks, Smith’s personal story and the candidate’s human response were a rare – and welcome – moment of compassion.
While the response has been overwhelming, it’s also been “pretty neat,” Smith told McClatchy on Friday.
“It’s been pretty cool, because it’s not just newspapers and TV reaching out, it’s real people. People from California and D.C. have been messaging me, saying they have a similar story and that they were here and ‘You’re not alone,’” he said.
Smith told the Ohio governor on Thursday that he had been “in a really dark place for a long time” after someone close to him committed suicide, his parents divorced, and his father lost his job.
I usually always have to tell people ‘I’m a Republican – but not that kind of Republican.’
Brett Smith, 21, University of Georgia student and Kasich supporter
“I was pretty depressed,” he said in front of an audience of about 200 at Clemson University in South Carolina. “But I found hope. And I found it in the Lord, and in my friends, and now I’ve found it in my presidential candidate that I support. And I’d really appreciate one of those hugs you’ve been talking about.”
A visibly moved Kasich embraced the young man, blinking away tears. Videos of the emotional hug went viral, the kind of human moment on the campaign trail that supporters say has been Kasich’s style since the beginning.
Smith was initially drawn to Kasich when he watched the first Republican debate in August, he told McClatchy.
“It was this question about gay marriage that really made him come across as a sane Republican,” Smith explained. “He said you don’t have to think the same way as someone to love people, celebrate with them and go to their wedding. This is an answer everybody can respect, it’s a really human thing to say.”
Smith said that as a political science major he has been very interested in following the election. Since candidates weren’t coming to campaign near his university in Athens, Ga., he drove up to South Carolina to see them up close.
“I went up a week earlier to Clemson for a (Donald) Trump rally, just for entertainment purposes,” he said. “I mean it was entertaining, but I didn’t walk away from it saying, ‘Oh, I want that to be my next president.’”
Smith said that he often feels like he has to explain to people that he’s a “sane Republican.”
“I usually always have to tell people ‘I’m a Republican – but not that kind of Republican.’ I think often it has a negative connotation, like you’re crazy – I’m more of a moderate,” he said.
In every sense, a Kasich event is the emotional opposite of a Trump rally. It is warm, where Trump’s are hot. It is open, where Trump’s are closed.
Charles P. Pierce in
A volunteer for Kasich’s campaign, Smith said he was excited to get a few photos with the candidate after Thursday’s event and is planning to drive to see him again when he holds an event in Georgia next week.
The hug had already been widely shared on social media when Kasich took the stage at CNN’s town hall in Columbia, S.C., later on Thursday.
“You’ve got to celebrate other people’s wins, and sometimes, you’ve got to sit with them and cry,” Kasich told moderator Anderson Cooper.
Talking to McClatchy on his 90-minute drive back to Athens on Friday, Smith said he hopes South Carolinian Republicans will consider Kasich as the most serious contender to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton when they vote in Saturday’s primary.
“I would tell them to look at the polling – Kasich is the one who by far appeals to the most people, he’s the most reasonable, he’s got a good record. This is not just blind trust and faith, he’s done a lot of good things,” Smith said.