John Kasich, the Ohio governor and two-time GOP presidential candidate, insists he’s not looking at another White House run in 2020. His closest allies say the same.
But the prominent Donald Trump adversary is publishing a book titled after a prominent 2016 speech he gave opposing Trump: “Two Paths: America Divided or United.” Almost immediately after it’s released later this month, he plans to return to the early voting state of New Hampshire during his book tour.
Between that and a series of aggressive political moves embarked on by Kasich and his advisers, the whispers among Republican insiders about a possible primary challenge to the president won’t go away no matter how hard he tries to dismiss them.
“I’m not really interested in running for political office again,” the term-limited governor said on CNN last week when asked directly about his intentions. “You don’t close the door on anything, but I have — I don’t have my eyes on that.”
That less-than-Shermanesque answer helps explain why the speculation continues to linger. From writing the book to maintaining a three-group political operation to occasionally airing his points of disagreement with the president, the governor seems intent on maintaining a presence in the national arena — even when he knows that it looks like the early stages of a presidential bid.
“He wants to continue to be a voice in the process. He has said he doesn’t intend to run for political office again, and, frankly, I believe him,” said former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, one of Kasich’s close political allies. Holding an April book event at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Goffstown — a must-stop for presidential hopefuls — Borges acknowledged, “does give you more exposure. It’s setting the bait a little bit.”
“It helps give him a megaphone for the issues that he wants to be talking about right now,” Borges added.
According to a handful of people close to the governor, another White House run is not part of the plan — at least not currently. Rather, Kasich is attempting to carve out a role as the foremost Republican counterbalance to Trump, a prominent voice offering an alternative vision of conservative governance that’s more conciliatory and less abrasive.
Those close to him are careful to include the caveat that the unpopular Trump administration has already been the least predictable ever, and that the political landscape could change dramatically between now and 2020.
“The easy answer is he developed a nationwide network of people, especially in New Hampshire and the early states. He’s staying in touch with them,” said longtime GOP strategist Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Kasich in 2016. “He’s not going to run against Trump or anything like that, but if there was an open seat he might. He’s keeping the options open.”
After raising his national profile as a moderate Republican alternative to Trump during the 2016 election, Kasich will have plenty of opportunities to make money on the speaking circuit after he leaves office next January. But his recent moves have been tightly designed in ways that his team knows will maintain a political buzz around him, starting with the St. Anselm appearance — the site that hosted the final GOP debate before the New Hampshire primary in which Trump and Kasich finished 1-2.
Kasich’s book, which will touch on lessons he learned while campaigning, will recount his experiences in New Hampshire, where he spent the bulk of his time early on in the 2016 election. It’s only natural that he would return there, allies say, even as they acknowledge the catalytic effect it will have on rumors of a possible Kasich challenge to Trump.
The governor’s relationship with the president, after all, has been tense since he positioned himself as the Trump alternative late into the spring of 2016 — and since Trump orchestrated Borges’ ouster after he won election as president.
That’s unlikely to change after the release of a book widely seen as an attempt to draw a contrast with Trump’s polarizing style.
“When Ohio Governor John Kasich ran for president, his powerful message of hope and togetherness struck a chord with American voters,” reads the publisher MacMillan’s description of the book. “‘In ‘Two Paths: America Divided or United,’ he carries that message forward by reflecting on the tumultuous 2016 campaign, sharing his concerns for America and his hopes for our future, and sounding a clarion call to reason and purpose, humility and dignity, righteousness and calm.”
“As Governor Kasich reminds us in these pages, America is great because America is good,” it adds, an apparent nod to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” motto.
The governor has occasionally praised Trump — including for his choice of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court — and the pair met in the Oval Office in February to talk about health care reform and the country’s need for a unified foreign policy message.
But his meeting with Trump appeared less harmonious than the meals the president has shared with other ex-2016 rivals — such as the pair of comparatively extended sit-down dinners with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and their wives, or his repeated meetings with Chris Christie. And Kasich has criticized the White House’s travel ban and trade stance, and met with House Republicans interested in learning about Ohio’s Medicaid expansion — a sticking point in the White House effort to pass a health care bill — ahead of their ultimately failed effort.
He also raised eyebrows last week by headlining a dinner for political journalists in Washington during a time Trump has declared many of them “the enemy of the people.”
“I so respect journalism and journalists and what you do to deliver the truth,” he said at the Toner Prize dinner. “I don’t care who attacks you, or who criticizes you, you do your job and you will be surprised and shocked by how many people will man the barricades to protect what you do.”
Kasich had widely been expected to run in 2020 if Trump lost: he had planned a speech at the American Enterprise Institute offering a path forward for Republicans the Thursday after Election Day, only to cancel it on Wednesday morning. And even during the general election, he stopped through New Hampshire in August for a thank you event with his backers and an endorsement of now-Gov. Chris Sununu.
Since Trump’s victory, Kasich has cultivated the profile of a prospective challenger. In February, his political advisers, including John Weaver and Chris Schrimpf, launched a 501(c)(4) group designed to push his policy priorities, like a balanced budget amendment. His campaign committee and his supportive super PAC remain in operation.
And he’s made sure to appear on national television from time to time, even joining Arizona Sen. John McCain at a national security conference in Munich at the invitation of his fellow Trump critic.
Kasich’s book tour is expected to land him in major East Coast cities, like New York and Boston, that are packed with Republican donors, some of whom remain skeptical of the White House.
Still, Kasich advisers warn against overreading the moves: no one has seriously tried to challenge a sitting president of their own party since Pat Buchanan took on George H.W. Bush in 1992. And no big donor is likely to shell out presidential-level cash to Kasich’s existing groups now, after all, because the Trump political operation has already proved itself willing to go after disloyal Republicans.
“It’s typical parlor-room gossip, but it’s not practical to run against a sitting president,” said Black. “And nobody’s going to give him money for that.”
Democrats see Kasich’s moves as an attempt to build a political legacy beyond his Ohio record, which will be up for debate in 2018 as fierce primary and general races loom over his seat.
To those close to Kasich, it’s simply about filling a void for GOP voters who remain uncomfortable with Trump. Kasich, after all, never campaigned for him as other 2016 hopefuls did, and he even avoided attending Trump’s nominating convention in his own state.
“Obviously, I’m a die-hard. If he said ‘Let’s [run] again,’ I’d be there. I don’t see it,” said Tom Rath, a veteran GOP strategist in New Hampshire and former state attorney general who served as a top adviser to Kasich in 2016, explaining that he has to be out of town when the governor returns next month. “If I thought it was something else, I’d be canceling plans and making sure I was there.”
But as Trump keeps sparring with members of his own party in Congress and governor’s mansions, the Ohioan’s allies see room for an alternative point of view to step up — even if fell far short in the presidential primary.
“It’s obviously being done in a way that will maximize attention not only to the book, but to the fact that there are other ways to get things done in the Republican Party,” said Rath. “He’s taking exactly the right position: Let’s remind people that there’s more to the Republican Party than the narrow brand coming out of Washington.”
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