Kasich Faces a Tough Test in Heartland Homeland

5 minute read

Ohio Gov. John Kasich stood on a raised platform inside a factory that makes automobile windshields. He took questions for 35 minutes Friday night, ranging from Syria to Social Security, millennials to manufacturing. It was classic Kasich: substantive, sunny and transparent.

It’s an approach that might meet its expiration date on Tuesday.

Looking at a countdown clock ahead of next week’s win-or-quit Ohio primary, Kasich has been frenetic in his home state looking for the first win of his White House run. He is vowing to triumph here, brushing aside questions on Friday night after his town hall-style meeting at the factory of the Fuyao Group, a Chinese company.

“Ohio’s critical. I’m going to win in Ohio,” he said defiantly.

Kasich has previously said that Ohio is his Waterloo. If he cannot win here in his home state—and, in the process, collect the 66 delegates up for grabs in a winner-take-all contest—then he will be forced from the race. Kasich is in overdrive trying to keep that from happening.

Throughout his campaign, Kasich has cast Ohio as a success story under his stewardship. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs, budget surpluses, increased government efficiency. But these voters here know his record well, and several confronted him during his town hall about changes to the state’s programs for the disabled. “The best place for our special needs folks are to live in the community, not in some big facility,” Kasich told one voter. He asked his staffers to collect contact information from her and another voter who questioned his changes.

It’s been a bit of a bitter welcome home for Kasich and a reminder that voters in candidates’ home states are often less forgiving than they are to newcomers. Kasich has been campaigning from coast to coast, but has yet to log any significant victories against frontrunner Donald Trump, whom Trump called “an absentee Governor” earlier this week.

Kasich had zero interest in responding with criticism, staying as cheery as ever. “Look, I’m not getting down in the mud with Donald, I mean he loves to be down there wrestling with people. I’m not going to do it,” he told reporters. Kasich has pitched himself as the anti-Trump without every using his name—including scheduling his Friday event in a Chinese corporation that Trump presumably would want to punish as part of his promised trade war.

Kasich remains in close quarters with Trump in the state. The most recent Fox News poll has him up five points, while an overlapping Quinnipiac poll has Trump up six. And with polling so wrong heading into Michigan last week, neither campaign is putting much faith in pollsters. Kasich, instead, is hoping voters have his back.

“I need your vote,” he said. “If you feel as though this state is doing better, and you want to share it with the rest of the country, then I need your vote on Tuesday.”

As Governor, Kasich controls the entire Ohio GOP apparatus. The state party’s chairman, Matt Borges, is one of Kasich’s strongest backers and has been one of his biggest boosters. The state party is a de factor arm of the Kasich campaign, senior Republicans in the state say, and rival campaigns acknowledge Kasich has built—or co-opted—a superior political machine here.

But there are limits to what traditional campaigns can do to derail Trump, the blustery billionaire who has shocked the political Establishment with a string of wins no one predicted. Republicans are now trying to derail a Trump nomination when the party meets in Cleveland for the convention. For that to happen, they need to deny Trump the required 1,237 delegates—the majority of them—before he gets to Cleveland.

To help scuttle Trump’s potential nomination on the first ballot, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has reduced his campaign to a one-state operation this week, looking for that state’s 99 delegates. His home state also votes Tuesday and he largely abandoned all others that vote on March 15. In fact, he’s going as far as to urge his supporters in Ohio to join up with Kasich to help Kasich win the delegates over Trump.

Kasich, however, was hardly as generous. Asked if he would urge his Florida backers—the Real Clear Politics average of polls estimates Kasich enjoying about 9% support—Kasich demurred.

“What kind of a deal would it be if I told my people, ‘Don’t vote for me,’” Kasich said. It might be the only deal that keeps Trump from the nomination. If Kasich and Rubio both fall on Tuesday, that makes Trump all the more likely to be the GOP’s nominee—the antithesis of Kasich’s Midwest civility.

“We’re really getting carried away,” Kasich said when asked about the delegate race. “We have a thousand delegates yet to be picked.” But if Kasich cannot win the 66 up for grabs from his neighbors, it’s unlikely he can persuade strangers to come aboard.

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Write to Philip Elliott / Moraine, Ohio at philip.elliott@time.com