Ohio Gov. John Kasich returned to the national spotlight this week with criticism for the GOP and President Trump, raising questions about the former Republican presidential candidate’s political future.
It’s clear that the governor wants to distinguish his brand of conservatism from Trump’s, a point the governor made repeatedly during a presidential bid that saw him become the last option in the primary for “#NeverTrump” Republicans. But what’s less clear now is what comes next for the governor, whose term expires in early 2019.
While Trump may embody the opposite of Kasich’s school of conservative politics, Kasich’s options are limited as long as Trump sits in the Oval Office.
“Kasich is kind of in limbo — his time as governor will end when he’s termed out, he doesn’t have a path toward any other office in Ohio, and if Trump runs for reelection, I doubt he’ll challenge him,” said Ryan Williams, a former aide on 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s presidential bid.
“But he’s trying to keep his name in the mix in case President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE decides not to run again … He, like many people, was counting on President Trump to lose in November, expecting to occupy a space in the effort to rebuild the party. But that evaporated the minute Trump won the election.”
Every appearance Kasich has made this week on a promotional tour for his new book — including stops at “The View,” “The Daily Show” and a brief swing through New Hampshire, a key primary state — builds to the same question: Will he run in 2020?
Each time, Kasich says a bid is "unlikely," but he doesn't say it's impossible.
During a Friday breakfast with members of the media, one reporter asked Kasich what he will do if he doesn’t run in 2020. But Kasich cut the question off.
“What I’m saying is it’s unlikely, but I don’t know what the future is going to bring for me, or what responsibility or obligation I might feel,” he said.
“I’m not writing this book, I’m not here today because I’m running for president. My wife would kill me … but you don’t ever say no to anything in life. I never thought I’d be governor.”
John Weaver, a longtime aide to the governor and an outspoken GOP critic of Trump, told The Hill that Kasich is not looking toward 2020 or having internal meetings to discuss the prospect.
“He’s not trying to be nuanced, he’s trying to be honest,” he said.
“He learned as a governor that you don’t overpromise.”
Even many Kasich fans believe he would never challenge the sitting president.
But that refusal to completely swear off a primary challenge could rub the president or his inner circle the wrong way, as Trump has shown a willingness to go after political opponents. Following a tough primary campaign, Trump threatened to bankroll a super PAC against Kasich and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley — Senate panel advances major antitrust bill Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Lawmakers press Biden admin to send more military aid to Ukraine MORE (R-Texas).
And Trump personally made phone calls to undercut the reelection bid of Ohio's GOP chairman, a Kasich ally. Trump’s preferred candidate won instead.
“As Trump has shown, he’s not afraid to go after people he thinks have crossed him,” Williams said.
“The biggest example of that in Ohio is Trump’s decision to personally intervene to defeat Kasich’s hand-picked state party chairman.”
The governor’s travels have put him back in the national media right as the political world buzzes with stories and analysis of Trump’s first 100 days.
It's clear Kasich wants his own more moderate Republican politics to contrast with Trump’s more brash approach.
The title of Kasich’s book — “Two Paths — comes from a primary speech where he railed against the “path” offered by Trump. Asked Friday whether he stands by his criticisms of Trump, Kasich largely punted on a direct answer.
But Kasich noted that, while he was seen as the “boring candidate” for opposing Trump ideas such as deporting 13 million undocumented immigrants, building a massive border wall and changing trade deals, Trump’s White House has failed to deliver on many of those campaign promises so far.
“With Donald Trump, he was a populist, I’m a populist. He was a negative populist, I’m a positive populist,” Kasich said Wednesday on “The Daily Show,” highlighting his support of Ohio’s Medicaid expansion.
“People are hurting … that’s real. So you have two ways of looking at it: You take somebody like that and you say, ‘It’s somebody else’s fault, somebody else ripped you off,’ and you drive that anger. Or you can look at them and say, ‘This is a terrible thing, but let’s work it out, let’s figure it out.’”
On Friday, Kasich made the “compassionate” case against the GOP’s healthcare plan and Trump’s tax plan, the lead items on the president's legislative agenda.
On healthcare, Kasich worried that the GOP’s plan would strip health insurance from millions. And he said that an expanding deficit from the massive tax cuts proposed in Trump’s tax plan this week would divert resources from social programs, including those that help the drug-addicted and mentally ill.
It’s issues like those where allies think Kasich could play a role in the future.
“Whatever John Kasich decides to do, he’s going to have a tremendous voice in the future of the Republican Party,” a Kasich adviser told The Hill.
“Everyone knows it’s unlikely it will be in an electoral role, but the sheer force of his ideas will have an impact on the GOP.”
Kasich is open about his disagreements Trump, but he has tried to move on, at least publicly, from his 2016 primary loss. He brushed aside questions on Friday about leaving the party and called his February trip to the White House “delightful” on Friday, adding that he’d always try to give the president the “best advice” if called upon.
“The governor has said you root for the pilot of the plane you are on,” Weaver said. “That doesn’t mean you want the same pilot for the next leg.
“You want this pilot to land the plane safely and get the hell out of there.”