The utter failure of John Kasich’s presidential bid is more than personal. It is the failure of the Republican establishment to connect with the American people.
Kasich, the governor of Ohio, was the last of the Republican insiders standing in the way of likely nominee Donald Trump, the brash gadfly who has never won, or even sought before, elective office.
A year ago, the party offered a lengthy all-star team of pragmatic conservatives with histories of winning broad constituencies. But Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida; Rick Perry, former governor of Texas; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; and Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, all flopped as presidential candidates.
Only Kasich survived into May. Yet he couldn’t win any state other than his own and was embarrassed week after week. As he left the race Wednesday, he had 153 delegates to the Republican convention, still fewer than Rubio, who suspended his campaign seven weeks ago.
Kasich bowed out Wednesday in brief remarks in Ohio, recalling his favorite campaign moments. He made no reference to Ted Cruz or Trump.
“I believe we all need to live a life a little bigger than ourselves,” he said, saying he had “faith that the Lord will show me the way forward.”
The insiders were victimized by a fierce voter insistence that candidates disavow all things Washington. That meant a boost for renegade outsider Trump, and if a voter still wanted a dollop of knowledge about the system, there was Sen. Cruz of Texas.
Cruz, who abandoned his own bid Tuesday night after a drubbing in Indiana, was the choice of the anyone-but-Trump crowd as it desperately sought someone to oppose the newly anointed Republican nominee-apparent.
But Republicans voters insisted on new strategies, or at least a new sort of leader, to deal with a sluggish economy, with a trade policy that seemed to have few protections for blue-collar workers and a government that seemed paralyzed by self-serving, ideologically rigid politicians.
“With point after point, Trump offered the red meat voters wanted,” said Steve Mitchell, the chairman of a research and communications firm based in East Lansing, Michigan. “Add that to his celebrity and his common-sense way of speaking, and it was hard for Kasich to break through.”
On paper, Kasich was an ideal Republican candidate: governor of a swing state, just re-elected overwhelmingly. Eighteen years of congressional experience. Wrote federal budgets. Worked in the private sector. The only Republican who consistently topped Democrat Hillary Clinton in national polls.
Yet even in states where he fought hard, where center-right Republicans have done well, he sank.
“He tried to take over the establishment lane at the very time that lane was shrinking,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.
Also, Kasich’s message was too muddled for voters, and his boast of electability “never works with primary voters. Primary voters are really much more about issues and principles, generally,” said David Carney, President George H.W. Bush’s political director.
Wednesday, Kasich looked ahead, and saw polling that found Trump crushing him in Oregon, the next state where he planned to make a strong effort. A Hoffman Research Group poll in Oregon last week found 3 of 4 Trump supporters said they wouldn’t change their minds, and Kasich was running a distant third to Trump and Cruz.
If the Republican Party rejected Kasich and the establishment, Kasich’s odyssey illustrates the trouble facing the GOP as it prepares for the general election.
The swing voters who did back Kasich – and others in recent years – tend to be centrists and independents most concerned about the economy. While they want change, they recoil at Trump’s china-breaking, insult-spewing style.
They’re more inclined to back pragmatic conservatives. Kasich and Christie, for instance, won re-election by appealing to a broad constituency.
Kasich won with 60 percent of the women’s vote in Ohio, for example, and 56 percent among those under 30. Christie won half of the Hispanic vote in New Jersey in 2013, a good showing for a Republican, and won among all moderate voters.
Trump has had trouble with all those groups. While he has won among women in most of the swing states, he rarely topped 50 percent. Democrats won’t let him forget his insults of Mexicans.
A new CNN/ORC poll found that while Trump and Clinton were tied among men, Clinton had a 61 to 35 percent advantage with women. She had a 20 percentage point lead with moderates.
There’s also concern among Republicans that they’ll lose congressional and other down-ballot races as the party’s image drifts away from Kasich’s more restrained brand of conservatism.
It’s hard to know, said Roger Beckett, executive director of the Ashbrook Center, a conservative educational organization in Ohio. Voters have defied traditional categorization this year, and the Trump triumph “shows how complex the support is behind Trump.”
The party’s best hope now is that the desire to beat Clinton overtakes other concerns. “We need time to unify,” GOP Chairman Reince Priebus told “CBS Morning News” Wednesday, “and we will unify.”