The Kasich Conundrum

How one of America's most Christian candidates became the most offensive.
The Kasich Conundrum
Image: Associated Press

A knowing, self-aware laughter came over the crowd at the Q Conference in April. Gabe Lyons, the founder of Q, revealed the survey results of conference attendees to show that among the five remaining presidential candidates it was John Kasich who took the plurality of the vote. It was not even close. Among the more than 1,000 evangelical leaders at the event, Kasich received 49 percent of their support. Ted Cruz came a distant second at 18 percent, and Hillary Clinton garnered 16 percent. Donald Trump had the support of only 2 percent of attendees. It is eerie to read these survey results from the Q Conference in light of the recent developments in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. After a resounding victory for Trump in Indiana, Cruz has dropped out of the race, and Kasich suspended his own candidacy yesterday, leaving Trump as the Republicans’ presumptive nominee.

This moment is ironically symbolic of the 2016 GOP presidential race and of Kasich’s campaign in particular. The vast majority of Americans chose not to vote for a politician precisely because of the very characteristics that many evangelicals, like those at Q, like about him.

At a time when incivility is perceived as courage, and a lack of anger equated to a lack of understanding, Kasich is the odd man out.

In this upside-down presidential election, Kasich was the most offensive candidate running.

How so? His faith hurt him more than it helped. Laura Ortberg Turner described this dynamic in an article in Politico, “How Kasich’s Religion is Hurting Him with Conservatives.” Kasich is a member of the Anglican Church of North America, formed following a split with the Episcopal Church over divisions regarding biblical authority and the sacrament of marriage, among other issues. Kasich has belonged to a small group of men that have met every week for more than 20 years, which is the subject of his 2010 book, Every Other Monday. He also contributed a short chapter to a book celebrating the life and ideas of Dallas Willard.

For reasons of disposition or conviction, Kasich’s faith typically comes out as a sort of natural consequence of the circumstances. To my knowledge, he has not delivered a “faith” speech. He has not spoken at Liberty University like Cruz and Trump did. His campaign did not have a staffer dedicated to religious outreach, unlike the campaigns of Cruz, Rubio, Bush, and Carson. As Turner pointed out, Kasich explained to reporters that he thinks it “cheapens God…to go out and try to win a vote by using God.”

Yet, his faith is evident for those paying attention. At the outset of his campaign, Kasich told TheAtlantic’s Molly Ball that he had been contemplating “some things that are extremely personal—what is my purpose in life?” In a visit to an Orthodox Jewish bookstore, he engaged Jewish students in a conversation on Scripture and his views on Abraham, Moses, and the Passover. These expressions seem devoid of any discernable political benefit, and exchanges like the one at the bookstore seem politically counter-productive with his target audience at the time. In an era of micro-managed, micro-targeted campaigns, such excursions are offensive.

Odd Man Out

Kasich claims his faith leads him to positions that fall outside of party doctrine. In a room full of donors convened by the Koch brothers, Kasich was asked by one woman why he agreed to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, extending health insurance to more low-income people. Many conservatives disapproved of the decision because they believe it undermined congressional efforts to repeal Obamacare. Kasich responded, in front of an audience of wealthy, libertarian-leaning donors: “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.” According to Politico, about 20 donors left the room and his fellow panelists, Gov. Nikki Haley and Gov. Bobby Jindal, spoke up to disagree. Kasich has not been invited back to a Koch gathering since.

Similarly, just weeks before the opening primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire—two overwhelmingly white states—he urged that those protesting the Tamir Rice verdict “need to be heard,” and approved of Department of Justice investigations into the Cleveland Police Department. He also signed an executive order calling for statewide law enforcement standards and created the Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations. State Sen. Nina Turner, a leading African-American Democrat in Ohio, told press that Kasich’s actions and words showed what was possible when elected officials “lay down our political affiliations to do what is in the best interest of the people that we serve.”

Kasich Is Not ‘Apocalyptic’

In the same way that Kasich turns down the temperature on some of the most prominent debates, he can dismiss the gravity of some debates in a way that upsets those most deeply invested in them. He expressed this perspective to The Washington Post editorial board recently:

"We’ve overdramatized our situation.…Change the world where you live. This is not about somebody coming in on some white charger from Washington to solve all your problems."

“We’ve overdramatized our situation. I don’t mean—I’m not being cold-hearted here, but we’ve had worse times in this country, far worse times in this country. We’d be fine. We’ll be fine if—and I’ll tell you, part of it is the spirit in people’s souls. I don’t know how much you follow this, probably not that much, but one of my messages is, ‘Hey, you were made special. Change the world where you live. This is not about somebody coming in on some white charger from Washington to solve all your problems.’”

This tendency to downplay the stakes of an issue is perhaps most clear in his explicit disinterest in the controversies over florists, bakers, and bathrooms that have come to define the religious freedom conversation in national media. When Hugh Hewitt asked Kasich about religious freedom in a Republican debate, specifically mentioning the rights of bakers, Kasich responded that while he would “fight” for religious institutions, “if you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce. That’s my view. And if you don’t agree with their lifestyle, say a prayer for them when they leave and hope they change their behavior.”

Matt Barber wrote that the exchange “exposed John Kasich as an enemy to religious freedom in the workplace.” Regarding his rejection of Mississippi’s recent religious freedom law, a National Review columnist warned Kasich, “don’t tell us to relax,” and wrote that if Kasich was right the “Pilgrims should have forgiven King James and not bothered leaving England.” These critiques, while overwrought, show the political costs to Kasich’s flippant honesty. Whether he is tamping down the heat on policy debates, or using precious debate time to scold his fellow candidates for their tone, it has been difficult to discern why Kasich is downplaying the anger and dire warnings about the fate of the nation coming from the other campaigns. As a Chicago Tribune columnist observed, “Kasich’s problem is that he’s not apocalyptic.”

Stuck in the Middle

Even though conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt has observed that it is “hard to find anyone who doesn’t like John Kasich,” there are other reasons voters and many Republican leaders have not embraced Kasich. Some find his personal style unappealing. He has a well-documented temper that his campaign has not tried to dispute.

There are also substantive issues. His tax plan seems unrealistic—the numbers just don’t work out according to Bloomberg’s Paula Dwyer. Kasich is not sufficiently conservative for many conservative leaders: As a presidential candidate he has supported Common Core and a Guest Worker program, positions that count as “apostasies” in the current conservative movement, according to The New York Times’ Robert Draper. Conservatives who did not like him before openly fumed when he stayed in the race longer than they thought he should.

In light of conservative criticism, liberals have tried to make clear that even though he might seem like a palatable Republican, voters should be terrified of him. Rolling Stonereported Kasich “worked with the legislature to jam some of the nation’s most restrictive anti-abortion policies into the state’s budget.” A Salon article insisted Kasich was “almost as bad as Trump,” and highlighted his (failed) effort to severely restrict collective bargaining rights in Ohio.

Several months ago, Kasich’s faith and his discomfort with totalizing politics came together at a town hall in South Carolina. A young man stood up and told Kasich that he had been “in a really dark place for a long time” following the death of a father-figure and his parents’ divorce. But, the man continued, “I found hope. And I found it in the Lord, and I found it in my friends, and now I found it in my presidential candidate that I support. And I’d really appreciate one of those hugs you’ve been talking about.” The man was in tears as Kasich walked up to hug him.

But as they hugged, Kasich said something interesting that was picked up by the microphone. He did not tell him he would bring his father’s job back. He did not tell him to get more involved in politics and he would find his purpose in life. He told him “The Lord will give you strength, if you trust him. I promise you that.” When the young man sat down, Kasich spoke to the crowd:

As I have been out here (campaigning), this is not unusual. … I’ve heard about the pain of people all across this country. And what I’ve learned is we’re going too fast in our lives. … There are not enough people who are helping those who have no one celebrate their victories … that sit down and cry with that young man. Don’t you see that’s what it’s about? We can rebuild the country, sir, and we can get people on their feet and we can grow, but is there any substitute for what you just heard? There isn’t.

For much of the campaign, John Kasich had the highest favorable rating and lowest unfavorable rating of any candidate of either party. He is the only Republican who was able to consistently defeat both of the potential Democratic nominees in national and crucial state polling. He is the popular governor of arguably the most politically important state in the nation. In the past, he would have been a favorite to win not just the Republican nomination, but the general election.

But it is 2016—political institutions are distrusted but also expected to address all of the country’s problems. People claim they are sick of polarization, but organize their lives around ideologies at an unprecedented level. In today’s politics, the only unpardonable sin is losing, and this primary season has made clear: now is not the time for John Kasich.

Michael Wear is the author of “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America,” which is available for pre-order now and will be published in January 2017. His website is www.michaelrwear.com, and you can follow him on twitter at @MichaelRWear.

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The Kasich Conundrum