On paper, John Kasich should be running away with the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
He was a budget-balancing, welfare-reforming conservative congressman in the heyday of the Gingrich Revolution. He is a very popular second-term governor in Ohio, one of the largest states in the Union, and one Republicans cannot win the presidency without. In California, he has the backing of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last Republican governor and an A-list Hollywood celebrity.
So what is going wrong? Why is Kasich lagging far behind businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)? And what hope does he really have of winning any delegates in California, or winning the Republican nomination itself in July?
Kasich’s problems began in 2011, when Ohio’s unions overturned his public sector labor reforms in a crushing landslide referendum. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had survived the union backlash because he had shrewdly exempted police and firefighters’ unions. Kasich did not, and the left quickly made public safety officers the symbols of their fight back — rather than the teachers’ unions, whose stranglehold on the school system and state pensions is often the essence of the problem.
Facing a choice between principled defeat and political survival, Kasich chose the latter, moving dramatically to the center and even to the left of the political spectrum. His most notable shift was on Obamacare. Kasich was one of several blue-state governors who had vowed to fight the law by refusing federal funds to expand Ohio’s Medicaid program, but who changed their minds after Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election saw any hope of repeal at the federal level postponed.
What was particularly grating to conservatives about Kasich’s switch was that he framed it in religious terms, declaring in 2013: “‘Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.’”
That stance undercut Kasich’s credibility as a fiscal conservative, but he went on to win re-election in 2014 by nearly 30 points.
The parallels to Schwarzenegger are difficult to ignore: both Schwarzenegger and Kasich are failed reformers-turned-liberal politicians.
The Terminator came into office in the recall election of 2003, and set about fighting the state’s entrenched union interests. They defeated his reforms at the ballot box, and Schwarzenegger lost no time in transforming himself into a left-wing politician, winning re-election in 2006 but going on to dig a financial hole deeper than any the state has ever known.
Schwarzenegger’s voters are now backing Trump, hoping he has the fight The Terminator lacked — and hoping that he, unlike Arnold, will have a Republican legislature.
So who is still left in that constituency — or, more precisely, which Republicans?
Kasich won the Ohio primary easily, but that was something of an aberration. It was not until the New York primary this past Tuesday that observers had a close look at who, exactly, pulls the lever for the guy in last place.
Kasich narrowly won New York’s 12th congressional district — albeit with a plurality, not a majority, of the votes there. The 12th takes in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as the East Village, and a few neighborhoods across the East River in Queens and Brooklyn.
It is a rather elite, fashionable part of New York, from the art museums to the coffee shops. And both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are politically unfashionable, not just in Manhattan but in America as a whole.
That is part of Trump’s appeal to his core supporters — and it is hotly disputed by Cruz fans, who take cultural cues from a different media universe. But it happens to be true, and there is little that can be done about it before November, except to make the Democrat look even worse.
Kasich’s supporters know he lacks charisma, but they want to back someone who does not embarrass them. They also want a return to standards — to the rule, for example, that governors make better candiates than Senators or businessmen because they have had to listen to people who don’t like them.
Kasich, like Schwarzenegger, may have taken the latter too far — working with others should mean compromise, not surrender — but it is something neither party has done lately.
So, in California, look for Kasich to focus on areas like New York’s 12th district — California’s own 12th district in downtown San Francisco, for example, or perhaps even the beach communities of the 47th and 48th districts, in Orange County. He needs to show that he has at least rudimentary national support if he hopes to convince a deadlocked Republican National Convention on the fifth or sixth ballot that he is the only hope.
Don’t let his humble posture fool you: Kasich could pull it off.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new e-book, Leadership Secrets of the Kings and Prophets: What the Bible’s Struggles Teach Us About Today, is on sale through Amazon Kindle Direct. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.