Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

And John Kasich Is the Angry One?

In this year’s GOP primary, centrism is the unhinged position.

“go into the hole!” John Kasich yells as he smacks a golf ball straight and far down the driving range of the Portsmouth Country Club on a New Hampshire afternoon that feels more like high summer than mid-fall. After stumping to a group of Rotarians inside the clubhouse, the Republican governor of Ohio is taking a break from his long-shot presidential campaign by practicing his impressive swing. Thwack. “That’s just ridiculous!” he says approvingly. Thwack. “Unbelievable!” Thwack. “It’s LeBron-like, it’s just that good.”

Unfortunately for Kasich, the golf course is one of the few places where he is connecting on the campaign trail. It’s partly his fault: At the Fox Business debate in Milwaukee a few days later, he exasperatedly interrupted and scolded his rivals, delivering what would be criticized by many as an off-putting performance. The most widely discussed moment came when audience members jeered him for saying he would protect federally insured bank deposits during a crisis—a mainstream position that has been the foundation of our financial system for eight decades.

His peevish performance may have been bad politics, but it is understandable. During a normal year, Kasich’s résumé would have positioned him as the most qualified and electable conservative in the field: He’s a former House Budget Committee chair and Armed Services Committee member; a former Fox News host; and a twice-elected, Jesus-loving, pro-life governor of a must-win swing state. “I’ve got more conservative credentials than just about anybody,” he tells me. “I’ve cut more taxes, balanced more budgets. I am the conservative.”

Instead, he finds himself mocked by his party’s base as a liberal turncoat in a way that echoes the reaction to Jon Huntsman’s short-lived 2012 campaign. After the Fox debate, Red State founder Erick Erickson labeled Kasich an “ass.” Brent Bozell tweeted: “Remember Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff and landing with a pathetic ‘poof’? That was the Kasich campaign tonight.” Even the Times’s reform-minded conservative Ross Douthat was pessimistic: “The fastest way to lose a G.O.P. nomination is by running against movement conservatism writ large.”

In a GOP primary held hostage by radicals who want to blow up the system, Kasich’s reasonableness—he supports the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, backs immigration reform, and believes climate change is real—makes him the radical in the race. “I’ve had a handful of Democratic fund-raisers ask me to connect them to the Kasich people because they want to donate a significant sum. If there was a party of the center, John Kasich would be the leading candidate,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz told me last month. “It’s tough for him to be successful because there’s not a lot of centrist Republicans anymore.” Even in New Hampshire, apparently. On Fox News after the debate, Luntz said that Kasich’s performance scored the lowest rating he’d ever seen with a focus group of New Hampshire voters.

But Kasich is betting that New Hampshire returns to its senses. In state polls, he’s been beating fellow Establishmentarians Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. “New Hampshire should rename itself Cape Canaveral, because New Hampshire is the place that launches people into the national consciousness,” Kasich says. He’s built one of the largest field organizations in the state, with 16 paid staffers; spent the most on advertising; and secured key endorsements from local power brokers, including former senators John Sununu and Gordon Humphrey and former attorney general Tom Rath. Since declaring his candidacy in July, Kasich has held two dozen town-hall meetings in the state, and he may get to a hundred by February.

Kasich is following a strategy that worked for another cranky candidate loathed by the party’s base: John McCain. McCain’s former Svengali John Weaver is Kasich’s chief strategist. Since 2008, Weaver has been looking for a candidate he could at least get to the convention. In 2012, he thought he’d found him in Huntsman. Now he’s banking on Kasich. “He can win in a general election, which at the end of day is the whole point of this,” Weaver tells me.

The most visible element of the Weaver strategy is the Kasich bus, a red-white-and-blue coach modeled on McCain’s fabled Straight Talk Express. But in the age of Trump and Twitter, the bus seems like an anachronism from a more hopeful moment in the GOP’s history. ­Riding along are three of Kasich’s longtime friends from his years in the House, when he was a party hero (Kasich balanced the budget, pushed welfare reform, and voted to impeach Bill Clinton). Even the movies are old: Raoul Walsh’s 1941 Western They Died With Their Boots On, about Custer’s last stand, plays silently on the bus’s TV.

Back on the bus after golf, Kasich is buoyed by his speech to the Rotarians, even if Trump is leading in New Hampshire by double digits. “People think problems are so bad that they’re looking for something dramatically different. It’s like having a football team that’s 0 and 6 and saying, ‘Why don’t we just recruit people out of the stands to play the next game?’ ” Kasich says. “But that never happens, and people settle down.”