COLUMBUS — So you’re among the half of Ohio voters who weren’t planning to vote for John Kasich. What now?
With the Republican governor’s Libertarian and tea party foes sidelined and his Democratic rival’s campaign disintegrating, pundits and partisans find themselves wondering what path non-Kasich supporters will choose on Election Day. They could skip over the race between Kasich and embattled Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald, throw their support behind the longshot third-party ticket, or just stay home.
After a series of political missteps, including revelations he lacked a permanent driver’s license for a decade, FitzGerald has seen an exodus of top campaign aides and recently announced he’d be diverting a significant chunk of his campaign cash to Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts.
“Generals don’t generally go down on the battlefield, but when they do, it’s felt all the way down to the privates,” said University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven. “This is going to depress Democratic turnout for sure.”
At the same time, Kasich has been a polarizing figure. After winning a close 2010 race against Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland, he warned Statehouse lobbyists to get on the bus or be run over by it. He signed into law divisive collective bargaining limits on public worker unions overturned by 60 percent of Ohio voters in 2011. Appointees have at times said Kasich’s team bullied them out of their jobs.
A Quinnipiac University poll released in July showed fewer than half of Ohio voters — 48 percent — were ready to vote for Kasich. That figure represented a significant advantage over FitzGerald, whom only 36 percent of voters favored even before his latest troubles. But, according to that same poll, 54 percent of Ohio voters backed Kasich at this point in his 2010 race against Strickland, a much more formidable and well-funded challenger.
Conservatives who wanted to see an alternative to Kasich on the Nov. 4 ballot are still likely to show up at the polls to vote for local issues, predicts tea party leader Tom Zawistowski, but they’ll probably abstain from casting a vote for governor.
“I think it can send a message not to vote for him,” Zawistowski said. “It can send a message that I have no choice.”
He said Kasich and his supporters have shut out other conservative voices and attacked FitzGerald full-force because they wanted to win by a landslide in order to pave the way to a White House bid: “The (Republican) convention’s going to be in Cleveland and they’re doing everything to make it a Kasich coronation.”
Baldwin-Wallace University political science professor Barbara Palmer called that a stretch.
“I don’t see Kasich as the scorched earth candidate. He tried the scorched-earth approach with the unions and it backfired, and he’s smart enough to learn from that,” she said. “He seems to be running what I’d call a textbook campaign.”
For Democrats, the main question is how damaging the waning support for FitzGerald will be for their down-ticket candidates.
When asked about residual effects of FitzGerald’s troubles on other statewide candidates, state Sen. Nina Turner, the Democratic secretary of state candidate, said, quoting Winston Churchill, “When you’re going through hell, you keep on going and that’s pretty much what we are doing.”
FitzGerald’s Aug. 22 decision to divert money to get-out-the-vote efforts — touted by former President Bill Clinton as a key to Ohio Democrats’ victory in the state this year — could bolster some of the party’s stronger candidates, including state Reps. John Patrick Carney and Connie Pillich. They are challenging Auditor Dave Yost and Treasurer Josh Mandel, respectively.
Niven said if Kasich wins by a landslide, FitzGerald’s shortcomings — not any Kasich aspirations for the White House — are to blame.
“This has been one of the great unexpected gifts that a candidate has received,” he said. “The totality of Ed FitzGerald’s being unable to function as a candidate, no one could have predicted that. With Kasich having won the first time with just 49 percent of the vote, in a quintessential purple state, and having 60 percent of Ohioans renounce one of his signature policies? This was anything but a slam dunk.”