In every mid-term election, there is a race for governor that draws nationwide attention and packs a political punch far beyond the borders of its state. This year, Virginia and New Jersey have drawn that attention.
The elections of Govs. Nelson Rockefeller in New York in 1958 and Ronald Reagan in California in 1966 helped shaped national Republican politics for nearly a generation. The likely election of Bob McDonnell in Virginia this year — if it comes to pass — will probably be another.
Next year, it will be Ohio where former congressman and host of Fox News’ “Heartland” program — John Kasich — is going to try to recapture the governorship for Republicans. But Kasich isn’t a “party establishment” candidate. As a congressman, the tousle-haired, easy-going Kasich was the embodiment of a small government-low tax conservative. Following a brief bid for the Republican nomination for President in 2000, Kasich spent nearly a decade in investment banking and as host of a popular television news program.
As Wisconsin’s Thompson did two decades ago, the 57-year-old Kasich preaches a political agenda that is conservative as well as adventurous: abolishing the Buckeye State’s death tax (now 7% on estates of $350,000 and above), phasing out the state income tax and overhauling the entire system of regulation to end what the Republican hopeful calls “duplication and an anti-business environment.”
And, like Minnesota’s Ventura, Kasich speaks the language of the tax protestor, with disdain for both political parties. As the Ohioan told me last week, “I voted Republican in ’08, but I did wonder how I could maintain my support for people who let me down. Hey, when they increased the spending, the Republican majority in Congress was working against things I had worked on — the spending cuts package [that Kasich co-author with Democratic Rep. Tim Penny in 1993] and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 [which eliminated federal budget deficits for the first time since man walked on the moon.]”
National Republicans letting down their supporters, Kasich believes, led to “Republican voters not turning out here” and that was a big reason for the Democratic sweeps of Ohio in ’06 and ’08. Moreover, he noted, “the last four years of the last Republican governor [Robert Taft, whose administration was engulfed by scandal involving a top GOP fund-raiser who eventually went to prison] really hurt Republicans at the polls.” Democrat Ted Strickland won the governorship and led his party to a statewide sweep in ’06 that left the Republicans with only one statewide office.
Two years later, Barack Obama won Ohio’s electoral votes by improving on John Kerry’s ’08 vote percentage in 71 of the Buckeye State’s 88 counties, while John McCain fell short of George W. Bush’s percentage in 82 counties.
“The enthusiasm from the Republican side was much lower than on our side,” Aaron Pickering, Obama’s Ohio campaign manager, told the Columbus Dispatch, in effect echoing Kasich’s point.
But in 2010, Kasich predicted, “The enthusiasm is coming back. I’ve seen it among independent voters and I have seen it at the tea parties I’ve been to. The turnout will be there for us.”
Kasich’s vision of the tide turning back to Republicans is also related to the alarming economic figures under Strickland’s watch: Ohio has lost 329,000 jobs since the beginning of 2007 and its unemployment was 10.1% in September — above the national average and the highest in the state since 1984. More significantly in the long run, Chief Executive Magazine noted (March 25, 2009) that “CEO’s around the country ranked Ohio as one of the worst states for business. In 2009, Ohio was 45th.”
“Profit Is Not a Dirty Word in Ohio”
At the Republican National Convention in 1988, the late James Rhodes, Ohio’s only four-term governor, pointed to then- Rep. John Kasich and said to me: “Johnny was the hardest-working guy in the state senate when I was governor [in his fourth term, 1978-82].”
Kasich, in turn, referred to Rhodes as “the last real visionary governor we had here.” First elected in 1962 (when Ohio had neither an income nor a sales tax), Rhodes began buying ads in the Wall Street Journal and other business publications with the slogan “Profit is Not a Dirty Word in Ohio.” He led trade missions to Europe and the Orient, personally called businessmen urging them to open plants in his state, and by 1966, the number of native industries expanding in Ohio and the number of new companies moving in were more than five times larger than what they were in 1962.
“We didn’t invent industrial development in Ohio,” Rhodes once said, “We just perfected it.”
“The present governor of Ohio doesn’t have that kind of vision — not at all,” Kasich told me. He noted that the state in the Midwest that attracts the most business is Indiana and “that’s because Indiana has a governor who understands business and how to attract it. We haven’t lost in football to Indiana in about 100 years but we sure are losing to them in bringing in employers and jobs.”
As gloomy as the current economic figures are in his state, Kasich distrusts them “because we don’t have an office independent of the governor to verify anything. That’s something we need — an office to fairly and independently score anything that comes out of government.
“When our unemployment figures don’t reflect how many folks have stopped looking for work, you know things are even worse than they seem — and why we need dramatic change.”
Are social issues such as abortion and marriage important in the race for governor, I asked. Kasich believes that all social issues matter and recalled his own strong pro-life record in Congress and support for the marriage amendment that enacted in the state in ’04. However, he said, “The social issues won’t matter if nobody is living in Ohio. That’s why this race is so important — and why what we do once we’re elected is as critical as our getting elected.”