Presidential Hopefuls: John Kasich

In the combative cauldron of the GOP primary season, the Ohio governor has represented himself as ‘the adult in the room.’

Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at a campaign rally at the Lansing Brewing Company on March 8 in Lansing, Mich.
Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at a campaign rally at the Lansing Brewing Company on March 8 in Lansing, Mich. (photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of Register articles profiling the leading presidential candidates in the 2016 election campaign. The Register has also profiled Hillary ClintonDonald TrumpMarco RubioBernie Sanders and Ted Cruz.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Known in Ohio as an outspoken governor who has taken on public-sector unions and signed 17 pieces of pro-life legislation, John Kasich has emerged as “the adult in the room” in the current presidential primary campaign.

In a series of combative Republican debates, Kasich has consistently appeared as a candidate of moderation and reason, earning him support from those who are weary of the politics of polarization.

“He appeals to people fatigued with infighting in Washington and would like the two parties to work together,” said David Stebenne, a professor of history and law at Ohio State University in Columbus, where Kasich graduated in 1974.

“I like his calm style, poise and ability to stay away from the mud-slinging,” added Dave Scheuerman, a Michigan voter who resides near the Ohio-Michigan border and formerly lived and worked in Ohio. Scheuerman, a Catholic, has been impressed with the second-term governor’s record, most especially his strong pro-life stance and his flair for diplomacy. “That will go a long way in world politics,” he said.

In endorsing the governor, The New York Times said, “Mr. Kasich is no moderate,” citing his pro-life actions, opposition to same-sex “marriage” and efforts to go after public-sector unions. But it called him the “only plausible choice for Republicans tired of the extremism and inexperience on display in this race.”

The Times also pointed to Kasich’s experience with “partisan fights and bipartisan deals” while he represented Ohio’s 12th Congressional District from 1983 to 2000 as evidence that he is “capable of compromise and believes in the ability of government to improve lives.”


Unorthodox Republican, in Some Areas

Stebenne said Kasich has earned such praise for taking some stands that are not considered orthodox conservative Republican positions. The best known of these was extending Medicaid, the government health-insurance program for low-income people, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — something he did by executive action, without the cooperation of the Republican-controlled legislature and over the objections of his party.

“Not only did he expand it, but, in essence, he circumvented the legislature,” said Greg Lawson of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market research and education think tank that adamantly opposed the expansion. The institute said Kasich’s action was bad policy for Ohio because it placed unsustainable financial liabilities on future taxpayers, would burden an already-strained labor market and damage the economy.

Likewise, the Independent Women’s Forum has been critical of Kasich for the expansion and the way he handled it, adding that his move casts doubt on any commitment he might have to limited government. The nonpartisan research and educational institution said the expansion cost the state $6.4 billion in the first two years and that Medicaid spending in the state went up 33% during Kasich’s first term.

Under the ACA, governors had the option of expanding Medicaid with time-limited federal help or continuing it as it had been before the law was passed.

On immigration, Kasich’s views are more moderate than those of some other Republican presidential candidates. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, he supports a path to legalization for the country’s 11 or 12 million undocumented immigrants, a guest-worker program, completion of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, the use of modern technology to secure the border and an end to sanctuary cities.

And, unlike Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, he backed down in the face of opposition to a bill that would have limited collective bargaining for the state’s public-employee unions. After voters, through a referendum, vigorously opposed the initiative, he acknowledged that they had spoken, Stebenne said. “People liked that he didn’t sound angry or defensive. He accepted the verdict of the people.”

In 2014, Kasich went on to win re-election in 86 of the state’s 88 counties. “The reason is he kind of moved to the middle,” Stebenne said.


Pro-Life Record

However, in supporting a ban on late-term abortion and restrictions on abortion businesses, he has stood with pro-life forces, although working largely behind the scenes to advance initiatives in the Ohio Legislature.

“It’s very Ohio,” said Stebenne of Kasich’s approach. He compared it with legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes’ “three yards in a cloud of dust” strategy of short runs rather than long throws. “Without undoing everything, he focused on specific, incremental changes in law that narrowed access to abortion.”

Among these was requiring abortion facilities to have transfer agreements with local hospitals, ensuring sufficient backup in the event of emergencies. Katherine Franklin of Ohio Right to Life said among the centers affected by this regulation was one in Sharonville, where, until 2014, late-term abortionist Martin Haskell had been doing surgical abortions. “That’s a huge victory for us because [Haskell] is the self-proclaimed poster child of late-term abortion.”

Franklin said such regulations have significantly reduced abortions in the state by 25% over the last five years, adding that, since 2011, when Kasich took office, half the state’s abortion facilities have closed or stopped performing surgical abortions.

Kasich also recently signed legislation defunding Planned Parenthood, cutting more than $1 million in yearly federal grants to the nation’s largest abortion provider. The legislation had gained renewed interest after undercover videos showed Planned Parenthood officials negotiating to buy body parts of aborted babies.

Although a subsequent investigation by Ohio’s Republican attorney general, Mike DeWine, did not discover evidence of such sales by Planned Parenthood affiliates in Ohio, it found that aborted fetuses from Planned Parenthood facilities were being dumped in landfills.  

Other pro-life legislation signed by Kasich includes the Heartbeat Informed Consent Act and funding for life-affirming pregnancy centers.

Stebenne said Kasich doesn’t advertise his strong pro-life record, nor is he heavy-handed about it, preferring to focus more on his interest in increasing mental-health services, for example. “His rhetoric is kinder, gentler conservative.”

Some progressive writers have taken note, however.

“Kasich has been more aggressive than any other governor in the Republican race in wielding the power of his office to run abortion providers out of business,” wrote reporter Molly Redden in Mother Jones, in a piece entitled “Before He Became the Moderate Candidate, John Kasich Waged War on Ohio’s Abortion Clinics.”

And Politico’s Jennifer Haberkorn, in a piece headlined, “On Abortion, Kasich Is No Moderate,” observed that Kasich doesn’t include his pro-life credentials in stump speeches and, when asked about his position, will merely say he is against abortion with three exceptions: rape, incest and the life of the mother. 


Economic Policies

Meanwhile, on economic issues, Kasich paints himself as a fiscal conservative both in Washington, where he was chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in Ohio as governor. In Congress, he said, he led an effort to balance the budget, cut taxes and start paying down the national debt.

As governor, he said he has provided for $5 billion in tax cuts that included elimination of the income tax for many small businesses, an end to the death tax and a 16% cut in the state income tax. He also claims that during his time in office the state’s economy has nearly recovered from a loss of 350,000 jobs, with an increase of more than 300,000 private-sector jobs and an unemployment rate below the national average.

But the Buckeye Institute’s Lawson said Kasich’s record is a mixed bag.

“On some things, he has definitely been fiscally conservative,” he said, citing the cuts in the state income tax and taxes on small business. “His goal has always been to continue reducing the income tax. We, as a free-market think tank, think income tax is not good for long-term economic growth, so we share those views with the governor.”

However, he said Kasich also has proposed what the institute considers some bad tax increases that have yet to get through the legislature, including a severance tax on oil and gas drillers and a significant tax increase on e-cigarettes. Lawson said the institute also dislikes Kasich’s support for a renewable-energy mandate and is concerned that his increases in spending in education and the Medicaid expansion will make it difficult to get the state where the governor wants to take it economically.

That said, the institute thinks Kasich has done well on the issue of school choice by expanding voucher programs in Ohio and adding one that allows students to qualify based on income needs.


Common Core Supporter

In the area of education, however, Heidi Huber believes Kasich’s support for Common Core could hurt him with voters. Huber’s opposition to the Common Core standards led her to seek the Republican nomination for Ohio’s 27th House District seat, currently occupied by Republican Tom Brinkman.

Although Ohio has defunded the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and replaced it with another assessment, Huber said this has amounted to little more than a rebranding of what is still the same set of standards.

Kasich avoids mentioning Common Core on the education page of his campaign website, focusing instead on his support for local control of schools and opposition to federally mandated learning standards.

Carolyn Jurkowitz, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, said the conference did not take a position on Common Core.

The conference, she said, has had a positive relationship with Kasich as governor and has met with him to discuss issues. “He has been willing to listen to the bishops’ concerns on everything, ranging from life issues to the effects of immigration on the population here in the state and labor practices.” The conference, she said, stood behind Kasich on the Medicaid expansion and has been pleased with his views on immigration.

On the death penalty, which is legal in Ohio, the bishops consider Kasich’s record to be limited.

“The governor has not been a strong opponent of the death penalty,” Jurkowitz said. “However, he has taken a number of individual cases under advisement and in cases of certain individuals has terminated the decision to execute.”

Concerning same-sex “marriage,” an issue on which the bishops are aligned with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Kasich has said he would follow federal law, as decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. He has stated that he is not personally a proponent of same-sex “marriages,” but has attended the same-sex ceremonies of several staff members, Jurkowitz said. The bishops have not challenged him on the issue, she added, because of his nuanced position.


Faith Journey

Although Kasich considers himself an evangelical Christian, he has talked with the bishops about his Catholic background, Jurkowitz said.

Raised a Catholic in McKees Rocks, Pa., a blue-collar area outside of Pittsburgh, Kasich currently worships at St. Augustine Anglican Church in Westerville, Ohio, a congregation that is part of the Anglican Church in North America, which broke off from the Episcopal Church over appointment of an actively homosexual bishop.

He fell away from his faith as a young man, but experienced a conversion through a conversation he had with a minister in 1987 after his parents were killed in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver.

“He has had quite a faith journey,” Jurkowitz said, adding that the bishops have talked to him about the possibility of returning to his Catholic roots.

Ohioans who knew Kasich before his ascendancy to the presidential campaign and wondered how the former Fox News commentator with a reputation for being outspoken and unscripted would fare have been somewhat surprised at his evolution in style, Jurkowitz said. “But next to the other candidates, he doesn’t come out looking so awful. He might be unvarnished when he speaks his mind, but he doesn’t tend to be rude or crude. What seemed outrageous a couple years ago doesn’t look outrageous today.”

Ohio State’s Stebenne said although Kasich can be edgy and even a little jarring at times, he thinks the governor mirrors the moderate political culture of his state.

“Politics in Ohio tends to be a shoving match at the 50-yard line,” Stebenne commented, “and he reflects that.”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.