Ohio Governor John Kasich launched his campaign for the presidency on Tuesday, casting himself as a compassionate conservative with a proven record of success in one of the nation’s top battlegrounds.
“I have decided to run for President of the United States,” Kasich said in his announcement speech at his alma mater, the Ohio State University. “I’m here to humbly tell you that I believe I do have the skills, and I have the experience.”
Kasich is the sixteenth and likely the last major candidate to enter the GOP primary field. He faces an uphill climb to capture the nomination. The Ohioan’s late entry into the race kicks off a two-week scramble to boost his national poll numbers quickly enough to qualify for the first Republican debate on Aug. 6 in Cleveland. Kasich is expected to stake his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire, whose flinty voters often favor iconoclastic conservatives of his ilk.
On paper, Kasich has the credentials of a top-tier contender. He’s a popular two-term governor who cut taxes in a critical swing state. He spent nearly 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, winning a reputation as a national security and fiscal hawk who pushed for a balanced-budget amendment. The union-busting legislation he signed in Ohio was even more aggressive than the Wisconsin bill that forms the cornerstone of Scott Walker’s campaign. (So much so that it was ultimately repealed by referendum.)
Kasich balances conservative policies with a folksy style and compassionate streak—expanding Medicaid, strengthening the safety net for the poor—that has helped him win over independent voters. In an announcement speech that was by turns poignant and rambling, Kasich made empathy for struggling Americans a centerpiece of his pitch. “If we’re not born to serve others,” he said, “what are we born to do?”
But the same policies that make Kasich intriguing in a general election will be perilous in a primary. The decision to expand Medicaid coverage under Obamacare is just one of his sins against conservative dogma. Kasich supports Common Core education standards. He favors earned legal status for undocumented immigrants, and has not ruled out a path to citizenship. His cranky demeanor has ruffled feathers among the GOP donor class.
Kasich’s taste for tweaking the hardliners in his own party evokes comparisons former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose base-bucking campaign for the Republican nomination flamed out spectacularly in 2012. Several of the architects of Huntsman’s bid, including senior strategists John Weaver and Matt David and adman Fred Davis, have formed the core of Kasich’s effort. Kasich is more conservative than Huntsman, but it’s an open question whether he can cobble together enough support to compete in early primary states dominated by the party’s grassroots activists.
Kasich ran for president once before, launching a short-lived campaign in 1999 before dropping out when it became clear that the Republican Party had coalesced behind George W. Bush. Another Bush stands in Kasich’s way this time, and he and Jeb Bush have some attributes in common: both are two-term governors of major states who went on to work with Lehman Brothers, and who have anchored their campaigns in themes of fiscal discipline and boosting struggling Americans. In his announcement speech, Kasich even borrowed the “right to rise” mantra that Bush uses. As in his brother’s 2000 campaign, Bush has also consolidated much of the party’s institutional and financial support.
Kasich’s path to the nomination is narrow, but he has the credibility to contend if he can find traction in a crowded field.