Sensing the window of opportunity is closing, John Kasich is on a last-minute dash across the country to convince party donors and power-brokers that there’s room for one more candidate in the most crowded Republican presidential field in decades.
The Ohio governor, who’s expected to formally announce his White House bid next month, is jetting to America’s political money capitals — from Dallas to New York City to Palm Beach — with the goal of securing the financial support he’ll need to wage a 2016 campaign.
He’s huddled with Ann Romney at a lavish Utah ski resort and pushed to win the backing of a powerful longtime friend, media mogul Rupert Murdoch. He’s also tried to convince Ohio’s deepest-pocketed donors to keep their powder dry and not commit until he gets into the race.
The case for his candidacy is grounded in his record as a popular swing state governor. But part of his sell to donors is that Jeb Bush has run an ineffective campaign, creating an opening for a candidate who happens to fit Kasich’s own profile.
At times, Kasich, who waged a disappointing campaign for the GOP nomination in 2000 and lacks the national profile of many of his would-be 2016 rivals, has faced tough questions about whether he’s getting in too late.
During one meeting, which took place about two weeks ago, the governor grew angry when a major Republican Party contributor pointed out that others had already formally launched their campaigns and built expansive teams of political advisers. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kasich snapped at the donor, who wished to remain anonymous because the meeting was private. It was still early, Kasich insisted, and Bush, who had endured a rocky rollout, was “losing steam.”
Kasich’s temper has made it harder to endear himself to the GOP’s wealthy benefactors. Last year, he traveled to Southern California to appear on a panel at a conference sponsored by the Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch. At one point, according to accounts provided by two sources present, Randy Kendrick, a major contributor and the wife of Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, rose to say she disagreed with Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage, and questioned why he’d expressed the view it was what God wanted.
The governor’s response was fiery. “I don’t know about you, lady,” he said as he pointed at Kendrick, his voice rising. “But when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.”
The exchange left many stunned. About 20 audience members walked out of the room, and two governors also on the panel, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, told Kasich they disagreed with him. The Ohio governor has not been invited back to a Koch seminar — opportunities for presidential aspirants to mingle with the party’s rich and powerful — in the months since.
A Kasich spokesman, Chris Schrimpf, declined to comment on the episode.
As he travels the country, Kasich, a two-term governor who spent nearly two decades in the House of Representatives, has made a forceful case for why there’s room for him in the race and has said that the fluid nature of the contest guarantees that the dynamics will shift before the primary season intensifies.
In his talks with the party’s top donors — a group that includes retail king Les Wexner and publishing magnate John Wolfe — Kasich, 63, has argued that other candidates had failed to coalesce the party behind them. And he has suggested they consider holding off on giving to other contenders, or at least consider contributing to him as well.
In his conversations with some of the party’s top statewide leaders, he’s pointed out that Bush had been unsuccessful in steamrolling the competition — as, he’s fond of pointing out, he was expected to do.
“It’s a year-and-a half before the election,” said Matt Borges, the Ohio Republican Party chairman and a staunch Kasich ally. “It’s not that the landscape might change. It’s that the landscape will change.”
Those briefed on Kasich’s plans say he’s begun a concerted push to lock down the support of Murdoch, the Australian-born media tycoon who is an influential voice in conservative circles, and was hopeful he could be brought aboard. The two have long been close: Murdoch was Kasich’s boss during his six-year tenure as Fox News host, and during Kasich’s 2010 gubernatorial bid he persuaded Murdoch to make a $1 million contribution to the Republican Governors Association. When they are both in New York City, Kasich and Murdoch make plans to see one another.
But Murdoch, those familiar with the effort say, hasn’t yet committed to Kasich, and has said he has many friends in the contest. He has pointed to Bush, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie as candidates he particularly admires.
There’s little question that Bush is a serious obstacle to Kasich. Both see themselves as serious, cerebral men with unrivaled policy chops. And both are seeking to win over the party’s pro-business establishment. Leaving nothing to chance, in recent months, the former Florida governor has launched a mission to secure support in Ohio, robbing Kasich of prospective fundraising dollars in his home state before he gets his campaign off the ground.
Two of Ohio’s biggest Republican givers, Wexner and businessman Mercer Reynolds, recently cut checks to Bush, who’s brought on Heather Larrison, a top fundraiser for Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, to help introduce him to the state’s Republican benefactors. And while House Speaker John Boehner, who remains a force in Ohio politics, has stopped short of endorsing Bush, there’s little question about where his allegiances lie. Last year, Boehner praised the former Florida governor by saying that he “has a record of serious, big reforms” and that he would have “a real shot” at winning the White House.
For Kasich, it’s an ironic twist. Running for president in 2000, Kasich, then a congressman, found himself gasping for air when George W. Bush dominated in the race for money and endorsements. Kasich would drop out before the primary season got under way, and in the years after, he would tell friends that he was stung by the loss.
Today, another Bush is standing in his way. But as he prepares to enter the 2016 maw, Kasich’s advisers insist he’s a different candidate — and one with more financial support. He’s gathered a formidable group of donors that is expected to include manufacturing company executive Karen Wright and venture capitalist Mark Kvamme.
“What that experience taught him was that he wasn’t really ready,” said Doug Preisse, the Franklin County Republican Party chairman and a longtime top Kasich political adviser, noting that historically, it’s been difficult for a member of the House to seek the presidency. “The difference is that he’s 15 years older, and he’s the executive of the seventh-largest state in the union.”
Kasich isn’t simply focused on raising dollars. He’s also racing to increase his profile, hoping that it will boost his standing in national polls so he can qualify for the first Republican debate, slated for August in Cleveland. If he doesn’t get in, it would prove embarrassing — and potentially damaging to his prospects. In recent weeks, Kasich — who at times during his gubernatorial tenure has been media-shy — has made himself a regular figure on the Sunday show circuit.
Unlike most candidates who attended a Republican donor retreat in Park City, Utah, Kasich went out of his way to make himself accessible to the reporters covering the event. He hung out in a media room, joked around with journalists, and made time for a 15-minute press conference.
The only thing he didn’t want to talk about, it seemed, was the thing he got asked about the most: Bush. Just days earlier, while stumping in New Hampshire, Kasich had said, “I thought Jeb would just suck all the air out of the room, and it just hasn’t happened.”
“You know, I said some things in New Hampshire about the fact that I wouldn’t have gotten in if I thought there was a clear winner,” Kasich said in Utah, adding: “I’m done talking about Jeb Bush, OK? I like Jeb.”