Just over four years ago, Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished second in the First in the Nation primary, behind eventual nominee (and president) Donald Trump.
The day after his appearance at the Democratic National Convention, many Granite State Republicans say he’s just finished.
Kasich has enjoyed a small but loyal following in New Hampshire for years.
The premise of his 2016 campaign was that Granite State Republicans were less partisan and more independent than their red-state counterparts, the perfect place for Kasich’s moderate message. He would give voters dissatisfied with the Trump vision of their party a candidate to rally around.
Weeks of campaigning across the state and 108 town halls later, Kasich got less than 16 percent of the vote — almost 20 points behind Trump. He would go on to win just a single state in the 2016 primary: His home state of Ohio.
While Kasich’s animosity toward Trump is hardly a secret — he’s spent much of the Trump presidency as CNN’s in-house “Republican Trump Hater” — giving a televised speech at the DNC attacking the sitting Republican president is aggressive even for him.
How did his New Hampshire Republican supporters feel about it?
“It’s not the choice I would have made,” says longtime Kasich friend and NH political player Bruce Berke. And while he might not support Kasich’s decision to speak, Berke acknowledges the consistency of the Ohio pol’s principles.
“I’ve known the governor for 25 years. That’s a speech about principles and partisanship he could have given 25 years ago.”
Tom Rath is perhaps Kasich’s best known New Hampshire booster, and he agrees that the speech was classic Kasich. “He’s talked a lot about getting away from partisanship,” Rath said. “He believes there’s a way that is not rooted in partisanship, that we can find common ground and work together.”
So, how should the 45,000 Granite Staters, many of them lifelong Republicans, who backed Kasich feel about seeing him throw his support behind Democrat Joe Biden and go to such lengths to undermine the president? Betrayed?
“I would say I understand why they feel that way, but this is the same John Kasich they voted for four years ago,” said Simon Thomson, Kasich’s state director in 2016 and grandson of legendary NHGOP Gov. Mel Thomson. “He always said ‘the GOP is my vehicle, not my master.’ And Republicans who are unhappy should maybe consider trading the current vehicle or fixing it.”
Thomson believes that many NHGOP voters felt the same way Kasich did about Trump’s impact on the party, “but now they’ve just gone back to their corner.”
Does that mean there are Republican primary voters waiting for the return of Kasich to lead them in taking the party away from Team Trump?
Kasich has made no secret of his desire to run again. At the Republican convention in Cleveland he dropped by to visit the New Hampshire delegation, leaving them with the message: “For the people in New Hampshire, I’ll be back.”
It’s a message that resonated with at least a few Granite State Republicans. “I’m hanging in there for 2020,” Rye Republican Janet Stevens said at the time. “We’re waiting with open arms.”
Stevens, currently a candidate in the NHGOP primary for executive council, called herself a “moderate, centrist Republican” in 2018 while talking up a possible Kasich POTUS bid. She backed Bill Weld’s primary challenge to President Trump earlier this year. Stevens didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Kasich has maintained his JohnKasich.com website and kept up a steady stream of campaign-like communications, emailing statements attacking Trump’s policies and behavior. He used that same email list to promote his appearance at the Democrats’ convention, including tips on how to watch his speech.
After all this, is Kasich a credible contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024?
Rath is reluctant to close the door. “I don’t know the answer,” he said. “I think that predicting politics these days is way beyond my ken.”
“But I don’t think he’s going to use [his DNC appearance] in his announcement speech,” Rath added.
Thomson is more pessimistic. “I would say he would have a very, very tough time winning a GOP primary for president, or even in his home state,” Thomson said
Most political insiders NHJournal spoke to, however, said Kasich has no future in the GOP.
“Kasich has a better shot at winning the Democrat nomination than winning the GOP nomination,” says Republican strategist Mike Dennehy. He also doubts Kasich’s efforts will have much effect on how Granite State Republicans vote. “I think the Republicans who voted for Kasich go to Trump. The independent voters are up for grabs, but I don’t think they care about Kasich’s endorsement.”
“He wasn’t popular enough before, and still isn’t, to influence voters’ decisions,” Dennehy added.
UNH political science professor Dante Scala is even more direct: “‘Kasich,’ ‘Republican’ and ‘future’ are three words never to be used in the same sentence again.”