CLEVELAND, OHIO — A Marco Rubio ally phoned thousands of Ohioans Saturday morning with a strange message: If you support Rubio, then vote for John Kasich.
“This is Phil Plummer, a Marco Rubio official delegate, supporter, sheriff of Montgomery County Ohio and Republican Party chairman,” the robocall begins. “Marco Rubio today has asked all supporters to vote for Governor John Kasich in Ohio. Yes, Senator Marco Rubio has asked us to vote for John Kasich.”
“Why?” he continues. “John Kasich turned Ohio’s largest budget deficit in history into a surplus, cut taxes by $5 billion leading to over 415,000 new jobs, even bringing jobs back from Mexico and China. In my community, it has already made a difference every day. Let’s win one for the Buckeye state. Please join me, an official Marco Rubio delegate, in voting for John Kasich for president this Tuesday.”
The message is paid for by Kasich’s super PAC, but it’s part of a strategy that Rubio approves of. The senator wants his Ohio supporters to vote for Kasich as part of a last-ditch strategy to beat back Donald Trump. Other than Trump, Kasich is the only candidate with a shot at winning Ohio’s 66 delegates in a winner-take-all primary on Tuesday, and so Rubio wants his supporters to help the governor to do just that. Rubio’s team wants Kasich’s Florida supporters to return the favor, throwing in with him in the hopes of upsetting Trump in Florida’s 99-delegate primary. The ultimate goal: denying Trump the delegates he’d need to win the nomination outright, and then snatching it away from the billionaire mogul at this summer’s GOP convention.
But for many of Rubio’s other rabid supporters here, the whiplash of pulling the lever for a rival – especially one they know intimately from his 18 years as an Ohio Congressman and five years in the governor’s mansion – is a difficult pill to swallow. And for others, it’s downright impossible.
Barbara Amper, a diehard supporter of Marco Rubio who wants to represent him as a delegate at July’s national convention in this northeast Ohio city, has already cast her ballot early for the senator. Delegates like Linda Smigel of Westlake and Kelly Ilagan of Columbus also told POLITICO they were so eager to back their guy that they submitted early ballots for Rubio days before his tactical call to vote for Kasich. They’re among the 84,000 Republicans that already cast votes in the primary as of March 4.
Now, just three days until the state casts ballots in a crucial presidential primary, Amper is begging neighbors, friends and family to vote for John Kasich.
“Is it gonna work? I don’t know,” said Amper. “I will tell you that I do not want to see Donald Trump in the White House.”
Even more Rubio delegates weren’t sure they could bring themselves to vote for Kasich at all, Rubio’s advice notwithstanding. Kasich, they noted, hadn’t returned Rubio’s favor and encouraged his Florida backers to vote for Rubio.
“If Governor Kasich were to make a reciprocal request of his supporters in Florida to vote for Senator Rubio, I would vote for the Governor in Ohio,” said Anthony Ciriaco, a Columbus attorney and prospective Rubio delegate. “However, if Governor Kasich does not make such a request of his supporters, I will vote for Senator Rubio in Ohio. Although I have supported Governor Kasich in many elections … I do not believe he is the best Republican running for president.”
Kasich going to bat for Rubio in Florida looks unlikely. The Associated Press reported Thursday that Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor is “going to win Ohio without [Rubio’s] help” and that Rubio would lose Florida “without ours.”
Three other Rubio delegates and one alternate – Ed Ptaszek, Adam Joesfczyk, Matthew Byrne and Justin Powell – declined to reveal their intentions.
“Rubio’s statement reflects his concern for the future of conservatism in the GOP over his own pride. That’s admirable,” said Powell, though he didn’t say whether he would honor Rubio’s request.
The dilemma for Rubio’s Ohio backers comes as Kasich’s team is salivating over the prospect of turning suddenly free-agent Rubio supporters into Kasich voters. They’re gambling that a well-timed push to corral Rubio voters will help push them over the top in a close race against Trump. With an assist from the super PAC robocall, the campaign has targeted Rubio supporters with Google ads that read “Rubio supports Kasich – In Ohio” and link to Rubio’s Friday remarks.
Kasich allies are hopeful that Rubio’s higher-profile supporters in Ohio, such as Treasurer Josh Mandel, lend their full-throated support to the vote-flipping effort. So far, Mandel’s social media accounts have been silent. Kasich controls most of the state party machinery that helped him get elected governor twice. Party chairman Matt Borges has been running his operation in the state and organizing phone banking and door knocking efforts, but it’s unclear whether he, too, is making a specific pitch to Rubio voters.
Four of the five most recent Ohio polls put Kasich just behind Trump, while Kasich grabbed a narrow lead in one. In all five, Rubio polled in the single digits.
Ideally for Kasich, all Rubio supporters would be like Amherst city councilman Phil van Treuren. Van Treuren, a Rubio delegate, took to Facebook Friday to urge followers to cast strategic votes for Kasich.
“If you support Rubio or Cruz, please realize that neither of them are going to win Ohio next week . . . they are polling far behind, while Kasich and Trump are effectively tied,” he wrote. “The best thing you can do for your candidate is help deny Trump our state’s delegates. Please share!”
The frustration of Van Treuren’s allies boiled over in the thread that followed. “My daughter will be voting in her first election,” said one. “Explaining a chess game to block the billionaire maniac but don’t vote for the democratic criminal is a HORRIBLE conversation to be having with her. My heart is sad.”
Rubio’s campaign declined to say whether it would put any resources behind the effort to get Kasich the win in Ohio, which like Florida is a “winner-take-all” state, meaning the victor here gets all 66 Ohio delegates to the national convention. Florida’s haul is even larger, at 99 delegates. Together, the two states make up more than 10 percent of the total a candidate needs to clinch the nomination.
That’s why stopping Trump from scoring twin victories is crucial to the candidates who hope to knock him off of his front-runner’s perch. Trump is dominant in Florida polls, leading Rubio in most cases by double digits and showing little signs of losing his grip, despite a withering campaign of TV attack ads in recent weeks and more vocal calls from Republican Party elders to unite against Trump, who they view as an ideological mystery and divisive leader.
Ohio is a closer call, however. Kasich has remained popular as governor here and has polled essentially tied with Trump in recent weeks. Though Trump clobbered Kasich in neighboring Michigan, Kasich’s allies are confident that loss won’t spill over into Ohio.
Trump planned two rallies in Ohio on Saturday, on in a Dayton suburb, the other here in Cleveland, a day after massive protests forced him to cancel a similar event in Chicago.
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