COLUMBUS — After Gov. John Kasich’s victory as part of a national Republican wave in 2010, results from the following two general election cycles would seem to bode poorly for his re-election prospects in 2014.
The rejection of the Republican-passed law restricting the collective bargaining rights of public employees during his first year in office was seen as a stinging rebuke of the governor’s policies. And Mr. Kasich and fellow Republicans were unable to deliver battleground Ohio to Mitt Romney in 2012, which in turn helped hand re-election to Democratic President Obama.
But while a recent Quinnipiac Poll showed voters still don’t believe Mr. Kasich has earned a second term, his numbers have slowly improved in recent months. His job approval rating recently moved into positive territory.
“Barring some unpredictable issue, time is on the governor’s side,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “Most people believe the economy will continue to improve. It may be a rocky road in a general sense, but most believe we’ll continue to see improvement. That helps the governor.
“One of the reasons polls show criticism of the governor is he had tried a lot of policy innovations to get the economy moving,” he said. “Some were popular. Some were very unpopular. But the more time he has, the more opportunity for those policies to work.”
Mr. Green said he hasn’t seen an Ohio governor tackle more bold policy changes since Democratic Gov. John Gilligan in the early 1970s. Mr. Gilligan was a one-term governor.
“We were down 400,000 [jobs], [now] up 127,000,” Mr. Kasich said recently as he marked the end of his second year in office, repeating a line he often uses in appearances across the state that usually are linked to economic development announcements.
“Sometimes people have to celebrate some victories, because what it does is prove that the effort’s working, and it gives people a sense of hope,” Mr. Kasich said. “And when I travel around the state, it’s a different attitude. I mean, you go with me to Cleveland, they are pumped up … I can find these people pumped up over in Mahoning Valley. People are now more optimistic, and I think that helps us.”
Issue of economy
Jim Ruvolo of Toledo, former Ohio Democratic Party chairman, agreed that the election could come down to how well Ohio’s economy performs.
“Ohio is terribly unpredictable,” Mr. Ruvolo said. “To go back and try to use the last cycle to predict the next one is crazy. It doesn’t work in Ohio. To say that Democrats are in good shape because Obama won the state is not true. If Kasich believes that the state will swing back to where it was in 2010, that could happen, but it could also not happen. Voters are pragmatic, moderate, and concerned about the economy.”
It will also depend on how successful Mr. Kasich is in avoiding the gaffes that plagued his first term, he said.
That may be why the Quinnipiac Poll showed voters are finally giving him positive marks for his job performance — 42 percent approval, 35 percent disapproval — while the governor is still upside down in voters’ opinion of whether he should be re-elected — 36 percent say “yes,” 43 percent “no.”
Mr. Kasich, a former Columbus-area congressman, is in the mix of names mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender in 2016, assuming he wins re-election as governor. National and Ohio Republicans point to the state’s economic performance as an indication that GOP policies are working.
“If Kasich starts thinking about 2016 too early, it could hurt badly in 2014,” Mr. Ruvolo said. “Republican primary voters are much more conservative than general election Ohio voters. If he starts tacking [to the right] too early, he could take his eye off the ball, and that would make him vulnerable.”
The John Kasich of 2012 was far less combative than the John Kasich of 2011, which was ultimately marked with the rejection of Senate Bill 5 at the polls.
In the aftermath, Mr. Kasich has cautioned against jumping into a new battle over making Ohio a right-to-work state in which both private and public sector employees could not be forced to pay dues or fair-share fees to a workplace union, the type of battle just waged in Michigan.
Mr. Kasich has repeatedly said right-to-work is not part of his agenda, but the issue may be taken out of his hands. An independent petition effort is gathering signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment directly to voters, and Mr. Kasich has flatly refused to say what position he would take if the issue does qualify for the ballot.
Buoyed by the defeat of Senate Bill 5 and Mr. Obama’s victory, Democrats claim they’ve developed a ground game that will sustain them as they take aim at Mr. Kasich.
While Mr. Kasich points to economic progress, dropping unemployment numbers, and surveys showing Ohio among the national leaders in job creation, Democrats credit the policies of Mr. Obama, such as championing the auto industry bailout, and those of predecessor Ted Strickland.
Mr. Kasich points to balancing a budget that multiple sources had claimed was nearly $8 billion out of balance while Democrats say it was done at the expense of local governments and schools that have asked voters to raise local property taxes.
Yet Democrats have not presented a clear challenger to Mr. Kasich.
According to that last Quinnipiac Poll, the Democrat still scoring highest among registered voters is Mr. Strickland, whom Mr. Kasich narrowly defeated in 2010.
“I don’t have to make a decision probably for a year or so, but I will make a decision soon,” Mr. Strickland said.
“I’ll try to let people know what my intentions are the early part of this year, probably no later than January.”
It’s a fight that Mr. Kasich appears ready to wage given his frequent use of numbers to bolster his story — the roughly 400,000 jobs lost in Ohio when Mr. Strickland was in office from 2006 through 2010 during the recession to the net gain of about 127,000 since Mr. Kasich took office.
“Ted Strickland’s failed record as governor is even more glaring since the successes of Governor Kasich, and a rematch would bring about a lopsided victory for John Kasich,” said Republican strategist Mark Weaver.
Among those most mentioned as possible contenders are Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, Youngstown area Congressman Tim Ryan, and Mr. Obama’s top consumer watchdog, Richard Cordray.
Mr. Cordray’s status as director of the new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could play a role in whether Ohio’s former attorney general returns home to Columbus for a gubernatorial run.
He took office without Senate confirmation in a controversial recess appointment last year, and a second-term appointment could be stymied by a Republican filibuster in the Democrat-controlled chamber.
“Cordray wanted to be governor,” Mr. Weaver said. “But you have to take into consideration that he’s in a very high-profile job with a very big salary and a President who likes him … But ... there may be action to take him out at some point.”
Mr. Kasich is preparing to unveil his second two-year budget proposal in late February as he plans to take on tax reform, school funding reform, and what he hopes will be a wave of new transportation projects across the state fueled by borrowing guaranteed by future Ohio Turnpike tolls.
He points to the creation of JobsOhio as a highlight of his administration.
The controversial nonprofit corporation took on many of functions of the now revamped Ohio Department of Development, despite its remaining hobbled by a lawsuit that has blocked its access to its primary funding source — state liquor sale profits.
“This is just good for the state, and I happen to be a part of it, and I think it’s great,” Mr. Kasich said.
“I happen to think the Lord is happy with the progress we’ve made.”
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.