If the Republicans want to save themselves from the demolition derby of their presidential primary race, they would flock to the side of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Kasich stands out in the field. He broke records in his re- election in a purple swing state, carrying every group in 86 of 88 counties — including Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, which Barack Obama won by a 2-to-1 margin in 2012.
He has as much experience and an equal or better record than the other governors running and more experience than the rest of the field combined. He’s the antidote to Donald Trump that the party sorely needs.
Here’s why Kasich won by 30 points: He moved Ohio from 48th in job creation to eighth (second in the Midwest), halved unemployment to 5.2 percent and grew income by 9.8 percent. There’s a budget surplus and a higher debt rating. Poverty fell three times faster than the national rate, helped by a Kasich initiative to adopt a version of the earned income tax credit, which makes work worthwhile for fast-food employees and hotel maids.
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Alas, Kasich also fails the Republican purity test. Although he’s a social conservative, against abortion and for the death penalty, who traded Catholicism for evangelical Christianity after his parents were killed in a car crash, he isn’t pure enough. His religion pulls him to the left on poverty and he has accused his party of waging war on the poor.
At a gathering of Republican governors in January, Kasich was alone in speaking up for immigrants. On Common Core, now radioactive in the party, he reminded Ohioans that it was the best a group of 40 governors could devise to provide a standard for what students across the country had to know. He argued against repeal of the Affordable Care Act as a lost cause. Worse, he took Medicaid expansion dollars. When Randy Kendrick, a major contributor and wife of the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, objected to his moral defense, he fired back, “I don’t know about you, lady, but when I get to the Pearly Gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.” He hasn’t been invited to a Koch brothers meet-and-greet since.
Compare this to the candidates likely to represent the party at the first debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6, a debate Kasich might not qualify for based on his standing in the polls (only those ranked in the top 10 will participate). In addition to Trump, there probably will be:
▪ Dr. Ben Carson who has compared Obamacare to slavery and favors Holocaust references.
▪ New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, hobbled by a year- long investigation into Bridgegate, looks for people to call stupid and whose state is in economic distress with nine bond downgrades.
▪ Gov. Scott Walker, a party favorite for his takedown of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions. Scott’s record includes a large budget deficit and lagging job growth, and he professes to not knowing if gays choose a lifestyle or are born that way, dodges questions on evolution while changing his position on immigration to pander to conservatives in Iowa.
▪ Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who like Kasich has a strong record of job creation. Unlike Kasich, he’s also under indictment and is best remembered for his stumbling memory lapse in the 2012 presidential primary debates.
▪ Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — they are paying a price for Obama’s thin resume before ascending to the Oval Office. Voters tell pollsters they are wary of inexperience.
▪ Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the heir to a political dynasty. Kasich has better economic stats, and he doesn’t carry the burden of claims that he enriched his business buddies by promoting private-charter schools while in office. More than that, he’s the son of a mailman who speaks his mind and doesn’t have the Bush silver-spoon issue.
So here stands Kasich — the governor of the seventh most populous state with 18 electoral votes; a 60 percent approval rating; Congressional, executive and private-sector experience; a hyperactive but winning personality; and the kind of vigor and relentlessness it takes to win a major election and tackle a dysfunctional economy.
He hasn’t met a question he doesn’t want to answer at length. He’s the anti-dynastic candidate with the proven record, provided his party can forgive his apostasies.
So here’s how Republicans win: they nominate Kasich, who picks as his running mate Rubio, blessed with the most raw political talent in the field. As Ohio and Florida (29 electoral votes) go, so goes the nation.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.
© 2015, Bloomberg View.