If Republicans want to save themselves from the demolition derby of their presidential primary race, they would flock to the side of Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He stands out in the field. He broke records in his re-election in a purple swing state, carrying every group in 86 of 88 counties — including Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, which Barack Obama won by a 2-to-1 margin in 2012.
He has as much experience and an equal or better record than the other governors running and more experience than the rest of the field combined. If Republicans were to rub a genie’s lamp and make a wish for someone to deliver them from their messy field, out of a puff of smoke Kasich would appear. He’s the antidote to Donald Trump that the party sorely needs.
Here’s why Kasich won by 30 points: He moved Ohio from 48th in job creation to eighth, halved unemployment to 5.2 percent and grew income by 9.8 percent. There’s a budget surplus and a higher debt rating. Poverty fell three times faster than the national rate, helped by a Kasich initiative to adopt a version of the earned income tax credit, which makes work worthwhile for fast-food employees and hotel maids.
Alas, Kasich also fails the GOP purity test. Though he’s a social conservative, against abortion and for the death penalty, who traded Catholicism for evangelical Christianity after his parents were killed in a car crash, he isn’t pure enough. His religion pulls him to the left on poverty and he has accused his party of waging war on the poor.
At a gathering of Republican governors in January, Kasich was alone in speaking up for immigrants. On Common Core, now radioactive in the party, he reminded Ohioans that it was the best a group of 40 governors could devise to provide a standard for what students across the country had to know. He argued against repeal of the Affordable Care Act as a lost cause. Worse, he took Medicaid expansion dollars. When Randy Kendrick, a major contributor and wife of the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, objected to his moral defense, he fired back, “I don’t know about you, lady, but when I get to the Pearly Gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”
Compare this to the likely candidates in the first debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6, a debate Kasich might not qualify for based on his standing in the polls (only those ranked in the top 10 will participate). In addition to Trump, there probably will be:
Dr. Ben Carson, who has compared Obamacare to slavery and favors Holocaust references.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, hobbled by Bridgegate, looks for people to call stupid, and his state is in economic distress with nine bond downgrades.
Gov. Scott Walker, a party favorite for his takedown of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions but whose record includes a large budget deficit and lagging job growth, and he professes to not knowing if gays choose a lifestyle or are born that way, dodges questions on evolution, and changes his position on immigration to pander to conservatives in Iowa.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who like Kasich has a strong record of job creation but unlike Kasich is best remembered for his stumbling memory lapse in the 2012 primary debates.
Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are paying a price for Obama’s thin resume before ascending to the Oval Office. Voters tell pollsters they are wary of inexperience.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the heir to a political dynasty. Kasich has better economic stats and doesn’t carry the burden of claims that he enriched his business buddies by promoting private-charter schools while in office. And he’s the son of a mailman and doesn’t have the Bush silver-spoon issue.
Kasich is a scrappy natural campaigner and, to use the word of the moment, authentic. He can tell a story. As a college freshman, he sent a letter to President Richard Nixon, offering to give him advice. In December 1970 the 18-year-old Kasich got a 20-minute audience and talked Nixon’s ear off — something he’s been doing with presidents ever since. He’s also used to coming from behind, winning his first election against a veteran Democrat by driving in his Chevy from one end of the congressional district to the other. It was 1982, and at age 30 he won a seat in Congress despite a Republican rout that year.
Kasich was a wunderkind, writing his own budgets to the consternation of the old guard — but not to Newt Gingrich. When the GOP took control of the House in 1994, Kasich became chairman of the Budget Committee, passing a balanced budget. He was a cafeteria conservative then as he is now, tangling with Dick Cheney over the overpriced B-2 bomber, voting for an assault-weapons ban and supporting welfare reform.
In 1999, he briefly entered the presidential race as a compassionate conservative until another Bush (George W.) entered the race. He ended up hosting a talk show on Fox and consulting for Lehman Brothers. In 2010, he re-emerged, beating incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland by a narrow margin. He stomped a weaker opponent in 2014.
History repeats itself as he finds himself running against another Bush with a huge treasury and the establishment behind him. But here stands Kasich — the governor of the seventh most populous state with 18 electoral votes; a 60 percent approval rating; congressional, executive and private-sector experience; a hyperactive but winning personality; and the kind of vigor and relentlessness it takes to win a major election and tackle a dysfunctional economy.
So here’s how Republicans win: they nominate Kasich, who picks as his running mate Rubio, blessed with the most raw political talent in the field. As Ohio and Florida (29 electoral votes) go, so goes the nation.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.