CLEVELAND, Ohio – The pool of contenders vying for the presidential nomination at the GOP primary debates Thursday might seem like pandemonium, but one candidate will feel more at home in Cleveland than the others because he’s in his own backyard — Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Less than one month after announcing his candidacy for presidency July 21 in Columbus, the second-term governor broke through the 17-candidate fray on Tuesday, edging out former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and securing a spot in Fox’s primetime 10-Republican debate in one of the most exciting fights for 10th place ever seen.
To determine the 10 participants in the debate hosted by Facebook and Fox News, Fox averaged five national polls from Fox, Bloomberg, CBS, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University.
The top 10 candidates based on those polls – Donald Trump (with a polling average of 23.4 percent), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (12.0 percent), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (10.2 percent), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (6.6 percent), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (5.8 percent), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (5.4 percent), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (5.4 percent), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (4.8 percent), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (3.4 percent), and Kasich (3.2 percent) – will meet on stage for the first official Republican debate of the 2016 primary season Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT. The remaining candidates will debate Thursday at 5 p.m.
Ohio is often described as a battleground state — no candidate since John F. Kennedy in 1960 has won the White House without winning Ohio — and Kasich’s success and leadership there could lend him a significant home field advantage that his team hopes will carry over to a national audience.
From the moment he announced his candidacy, Kasich, 63, has preached an “Ohio story,” focusing on leadership and economic recovery during his record as a two-term governor in a state critical to winning the presidency.
“We are going to take the lessons of the heartland and straighten out Washington D.C.,” Kasich told supporters at his July campaign announcement at Ohio State University.
“It’s only fitting that this phase of the Republican presidential nomination begins in Ohio—the mother of Presidents. After all, no Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio,” Kasich said in a statement Tuesday. “As governor, I am glad to welcome my fellow debate participants to our great state and I look forward to discussing the issues facing our country with them on Thursday.”
The son of a Pennsylvania mailman, Kasich won his first election to the Ohio Senate after graduating from Ohio State,. At 30, in 1982, he won a seat in Congress, becoming the only nonincumbent Republican that year to defeat an incumbent Democrat. He served nine terms in Congress and spent 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he led a successful effort to balance the federal budget when Bill Clinton was president.
Seen as more moderate than some in his party, he has supported Common Core educational standards, opening pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants, higher taxes on the oil and gas industry, and Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act . As governor, he had to circumvent the Republican-led General Assembly to expand Medicair in his state.
And though his time as governor got off to a rocky start – his 2010 ousting of incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland was the closest race for governor in 32 years, and Kasich’s early attempts to weaken public employee labor unions a la Scott Walker were roundly rejected by Ohio voters in a referendum – he was re-elected in November 2014 in a 30-point landslide.
Kasich won 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties in his most recent gubernatorial race, including Cleveland’s Democratic strongholds like Mahoning (Youngstown), Lucas (Toledo) and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga counties—unheard-of for a Republican: In 2012, President Barack Obama won Cuyahoga by a two-to-one margin.
Variously described as a “gritty,” “edgy” “voluble” “unorthodox” and a “maverick,” “jerk” and “rebel” –Kasich turned Ohio’s $8 billion deficit into a $2 billion surplus.
“He’s done a lot of good things with Ohio,” Cleveland native Matt Wagner, 21, said Wednesday. “He won a quarter of the African American vote. That’s something Rand Paul has talked about, but it’s something Kasich has already done. He won across union households, something that was surprising after his collective bargaining thing. I think he can really bring the country together,” Wagner said.
“I think he’s amazing,” James Yurius of Westlake, Ohio said. “He’s done a lot for the economy in Ohio specifically, and I think if he continues to do work for Ohio the way he’s doing now, and applies it to the whole U.S., I think he can do great things.”
“Ohio’s going to meet him with big applause,” Yurius added, anticipating Kasich’s reception at the Cleveland debates.
Still, Kasich is not nearly as well known as other candidates, as evidenced by the polls that got him his 10th place slot –only 3.2 percent of Republicans back him.
And though he passed a critical early test by raising poll numbers enough to land a spot in Thursay’s primetime debate, now he must prove he can distinguish himself from the madding crowd of colorful aspirants, including controversial reality star and real estate mogul Donald Trump, who was first in Fox’s polls.
At a fundraiser event previewing the debates Wednesday night, GOP strategist Karl Rove suggested the debate could be just the platform for Kasich to do this.
“He knows how to use television, and he’s got a good story,” Rove said. “You’re gonna hear him talk about how he served for 18 years on the Armed Services Committee and understands the dangerous world we live in. You’re gonna hear him talk about how he was the chairman of the budget committee the last time we balanced the budget, and you’re gonna hear him talk about Ohio. And all three of those things are gonna be compelling.”
When asked what advice he would give to the eventual Republican nominee, whoever that is, about how to handle Ohio, Rove said:
“Pretend like you’re running for governor.”
At Thursday’s crowded debate, when Kasich steps behind his No. 10 podium inside a transformed Quicken Loans Arena, out of all the many candidates there, he’ll know better than anyone else how to do that.