Kasich Wins Ohio; Path Forward Is Unclear
BEREA, Ohio – John Kasich notched his first primary victory Tuesday night, topping front-runner Donald Trump in his home state of Ohio and becoming Republicans’ last, best hope to stop the business mogul from winning the nomination outright and force the GOP race into a contested convention.
It was a critically important win for a candidate who, just a few weeks ago, many believed would end the primary as an also-ran.
Kasich’s supporters celebrated the victory with chants of “USA” and “O-HI-O” and even a few scattered “We want Trump” cheers. Kasich, speaking in front of a sign that said, “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation,” thanked his supporters and touted the new momentum for his campaign.
“All I can say is thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I want you to know something: We are going to go all the way to Cleveland and secure the Republican nomination,” Kasich said.
But there was one significant question hanging over Kasich Tuesday night: With only one primary win, what is his path forward to Cleveland?
The Ohio governor went all out to notch the victory Tuesday night. He crisscrossed the Buckeye State in the days leading up to the primary, doing nearly a dozen events. He had the full backing of the state party here, and after six years as governor his approval rating among Republicans is sky high. Despite all that, he defeated Trump by just 11 percentage points.
Kasich now has one win and second-places finishes in three states and the District of Columbia, pending Tuesday night's results. He trails significantly in the delegate count. It is mathematically impossible for Kasich to win the nomination outright with the required 1,237 delegates, as he and his campaign have conceded. Instead, Ohio’s favorite son has set his sights on simply winning the most delegates, if not a majority. With the 66 delegates he gained in Ohio, Kasich has 138, according to RealClearPolitics' delegate tally.
“We have 1,000 delegates to go. You may see me pick up speed and have momentum,” Kasich told reporters Monday. “I may go to the convention with more delegates than any of them, but probably not enough to win.”
Even going in with more delegates than the other candidates will be a tall order, with Trump increasing his sizable lead Tuesday after wins in Florida, Illinois North Carolina, and Missouri (though the latter was officially too close to call Wednesday morning). The business mogul has over 600 delegates with his victories Tuesday.
Kasich, however, has argued the primary would be a new ballgame once he won his home state. In an interview with CNN just after the results were announced, Kasich said he’s been getting more attention in recent weeks than the entire rest of his campaign. He also argued significant momentum would swing his way once more people began to hear his message and learn about his record in Ohio.
John Weaver, the campaign’s chief strategist, told RCP Tuesday that the remaining half of the primary states are much more favorable toward Kasich’s message than those that have already voted.
“The states that were good for Ted Cruz are in his rearview mirror, other than Arizona,” Weaver said. “For us, every state in front of us is good. The primary calendar was not kind to us in the first half of the calendar and that’s fine, there’s no whining in baseball or politics, but the calendar in the second half is much better.”
Weaver pointed to multiple states he thinks the campaign could compete in or win next month. But those first up -- Utah and Arizona -- are both states where Kasich has polled poorly and other campaigns are favored.
There is a two-week gap after next week before the Wisconsin primary and then another two weeks before New York, both states where Weaver said Kasich will compete. The following week, at the end of April, there’s a string of states – Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania – that Weaver pointed to as places Kasich would be competitive.
But even though Kasich’s camp is bullish on the April schedule, the polls don’t look kind. Trump leads by more than 20 points in Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania, the three biggest states Weaver highlighted, according to the RCP averages. Though Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the race after losing Florida Tuesday, Kasich would still trail Trump in those polls even if all Rubio’s supporters turned to the Ohio governor.
In a victory memo Tuesday, Weaver said the campaign had internal data showing that Rubio’s voters would swing to Kasich by a 3-to-1 margin.
“So what?” Weaver said when asked about the poll numbers in the states ahead. “When we got in the race months ago, polls had us at zero. When we got in the race there were 16 people, now there would be three. Things in politics are not static."
If Kasich does turn his Ohio momentum into victories or close second-place finishes in some of the upcoming states, it could force the race into a contested convention in July. Weaver said the campaign has a team in place planning for that outcome, as well as for the state and local conventions where the delegates will be selected, though he declined to elaborate. He also pointed out that having the convention in Cleveland – less than 20 miles from where Kasich held his Tuesday night rally – would be a big boost for the governor.
Kasich earlier this week suggested the positive nature of his campaign, talking about his record as governor and in Congress, would position him well for the convention, compared to Trump’s campaign of personal attacks.
“It’s not going to be about insults or wrestling in the mud or one-liners or anything else,” Kasich told the Columbus Dispatch earlier this week. “It’s not the way conventions work.”
Kasich also hinted he might be more willing to criticize or attack Trump in the weeks ahead, something he has steadfastly avoided doing to this point in the campaign. After casting his vote Tuesday morning, Kasich told reporters that an unaffiliated super PAC ad showing some of the offensive things Trump has said about women swayed him.
“I have two daughters. They see this stuff. What do you think they think?” Kasich said. “I’ll have more to say about that. But that’s going to be not designed to be negative as much as it is to point out things that I’ve seen that are deeply disturbing in this process."
Still, despite promises to take on Trump more as the campaign moves forward, Kasich repeated a line in his victory speech that’s become a mainstay during his campaign events.
“I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land,” he said to cheers from the crowd.