MANCHESTER, NH — Sarah Palin endorsing Donald Trump wasn’t the only big news story yesterday. John Kasich, the grizzled, timeworn governor of Ohio, surged to second place in an ARG poll of the New Hampshire primary, putting the erratic vagrant within striking distance of Trump, who has led every single poll of the state since last summer.
I took the bus up to New Hampshire yesterday to get a firsthand look at Kasich-mentum and see if the plucky Ohioan has what it takes to snatch the GOP nomination.
Im not a poltical sciencist but this is a bad sign for the Kasich campaign pic.twitter.com/SRziq4Phdc
— PFTCommenter (@PFTCommenter) January 14, 2016
The story of John “Rusty” Kasich started in 2010, when, after years of aimless drifting and working odd jobs around the country, he was elected the 69th governor of Ohio. In that race Kasich earned a reputation as a hard worker for walking the entire state, often shoeless, meeting voters in places like gas station bathrooms, the alleys behind bakeries, and underneath bridges — places where candidates normally don’t go.
As governor, Kasich fulfilled his small-government campaign promise to refuse a salary, a motorcade, a staff, the governor’s mansion, and hot running water. In his inaugural address, he told the state he “didn’t need much” and could “pretty much run things out of my car — Hell, I’ve been doing it for years — just so long as these wiseguys at the Flying J don’t cause a fuss when you’re trying to exercise your right to use the bathroom for whatever LEGAL purpose you need it for.”
Kasich’s austere lifestyle, emphasis on the Constitutional right to use public amenities, and hands-off approach to governing — he has neither vetoed nor signed nor even read any of the bills passed by the Ohio legislature — have won him plaudits among liberty-minded small government voters. So it was no surprise when he pulled up stakes, paid $30 in pennies and nickels for a Greyhound ticket, and went to Iowa to run for President.
At about 10 AM, I arrived in Manchester at Kasich’s makeshift campaign headquarters, where I was greeted by the Governor waving a butter knife, screaming, “I told you those bottles were mine!” When he realized I was a journalist he calmed down and invited me through the clear plastic door of his cinderblocked campaign winnebago.
“Sorry about the ol’ Shanghai Alarm Clock, Carl, I thought you were Lucky Al come back for my bottle deposits,” said the candidate, gesturing to a mound of clear blue bags full of empties. “We’re gonna be flush and flow when the Michigan primary comes around, ’cause that’s ten cents a pop over there.”
After smoking a few cigarette butts, Kasich is off to his first campaign stop: Lovie’s Diner in Bedford. Here the genteel candidate greets every table, talking about their breakfasts with genuine interest, frequently asking if he can finish their home fries or snatch a handful of butter and jelly packets.
Suddenly the famously punctual Kasich is sprinting out the door, smashed jellies smearing his coat, off to a rally in the park.
Getting up before a hundred curious GOP voters, Kasich launches into one of his vivid, rambling stories. He rails against Planned Parenthood, describing the time he went in there just to use the bathroom and “they gave me a real hard time. I explained to them that I am a customer and proved it by grabbing some pamphlets on breast self-checkups, and I before I knew it, I was being given the ol’ heave-ho. Now these people are… crooks! They… they…”
In unison, the audience finishes Kasich’s campaign slogan: “They had it out for me!”
GOP voters are angry. They feel betrayed by big banks, by the government, even by elites in their own party. And Kasich has struck a nerve with them with his down-to-earth stories of a little guy who’s not hurting anyone, just trying to charge his phone and being persecuted.
Kasich is often short on specifics, and frequently ends his appearances — as he did in the park — running away from a security guard, screaming “Let’s go! There’s no time to explain!” Voters love this catchphrase too.
“I agree with the governor. America is burning down. This is no time to explain, this is a time to act,” said Mary, a 68-year-old retired nurse from Derry. “He’s real fast for a big guy, too.”
Governor Kasich is pacing around his dilapidated Ford Dart with the same gait Ohioans now associate with fiscal prudence and Kasich’s cerebral approach to everyday problems. He’s usually like this after a big speech, high off the energy of the crowd.
“Sure, I think they liked me. Maybe. Who knows. You know, I got a lot of job interviews I had in my day though. Yeah, they’ll tell you they’ll call you back, but they’re just shining you on. That’s what they do. They say they’ll hire someone with priors, but… [unintelligible drifting off].. They just have it out for you the entire time. What can you do though?”
Does the Beltway outsider feel doubtful of his supporters? “People, are, they just got their own hustles. You learn that on the rails, Carl. There are some real great shits out there, too, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying.”
How does his family factor into his campaign?
“I haven’t seen my daughter since Nebraska so we’re going on like, 8 or 9 years here. I’m trying to get some guy to buy this Shopvac off me, top of the line, not stolen or anything, it was just my half brother’s and he passed.” The governor removed a can of beans he placed on the lower part of a stained coffee maker. “That way, I can get my old lady out here. She’s on the hock right now, but if I get her out, she’s getting out here on the Greyhound. Not Magic Bus though. Definitely not them, I’m going to sue them for some stuff that, you know, my half-brother is a paralegal.”
Kasich is surprisingly more lucid when it comes time to talk policy. On foreign policy, he tells me “you gotta be diplomatic when you ride the rails. The Iranians, you think they’re nuts? You gotta show ’em you got a sharpened screwdriver right in your waistband. See how nuts they feel. Don’t take it out or nothin’, you’re just letting them know you’re no patsy. You think the Iranians are bad? You wanna hear nuts? Let me tell you about this guy, Shoeless… Shirtless… Joe or something… I don’t even…”
After our one-on-one and repeated requests for cigarettes, I trailed Kasich to another campaign stop, this time at a farm outside Derry. Speaking to an enraptured crowd, Kasich excoriated his competition in the GOP field.
“Donald Trump, yeah that’s gonna be a good choice. I was thrown straight out of one of his fancy shmancy hotel lobbies when I didn’t even do anything, I was just there to use the bathroom and charge my phone. It’s a public accommodation. Read the law, read the law, Carl. That’s who you want in the White House? Hell, he’ll probably be throwing kings and queens out. Kings. And. Queens! And I promise you, the first day I’m in that White House, you know exactly what I’m going to do. Definitely a nice, hot shower, absolutely. No doubt. Then a big dinner, we’re talking a big plate of liver and onions, all the trimmings, some mashed potatoes too. Hell, we can afford it, with the Obamacare money.”
The crowd becomes electric as Kasich’s energy grows. His resentments are theirs, and their faces light up whenever he clears his throat or does his trademark nose dab to indicate he’s angry.
“Ben Carson, I don’t even know if that guy’s a real doctor. If he is, I wanna know if he can prescribe OCs. I don’t use ‘em. I make money off ‘em. I’ve been clean since ‘96, not that everyone believes me, but –”
The crowd finishes his statement once more with a unified “THEY HAD IT OUT FOR ME!” that could send ripples through the ocean.
“To be honest with you, I couldn’t really follow Governor Kasich’s stories about being thrown out of all those fast food bathrooms, or why he’s suing Circuit City, but that feeling like they’re always throwing you out and always have it out for you, well that’s what it’s like to be a Christian in this country,” Keith Chu, a local farmer, told me.
“John Kasich just cares about this country. He wants everyone to be able to use the bathroom. What I care about the most is that he’s deeply committed to family values. He even asked me for some spare change, not even quarters, just enough to get America back on its feet. He made a personal promise to me that he’d try and call his daughter if he could charge his phone,” said Dolores Clayburn, a secretary at a Derry church.
Still, Kasich can’t win on rallies alone. He needs money, but he tells me he’s not worried about that.
“I got a big settlement coming from McDonald’s, they threw me out for the ‘crime’ of charging my phone, and I banged my elbow on a Grimace cutout. I got nerve problems now. My half-brother is handling that one — he’s a paralegal — and that payout’s gonna last me a while.”
The New Hampshire primary is a famously tough nut to crack. The Governor has pledged to visit every county in the state, except for one… “The, uh, the sheriff has it out for me… I can’t go to that place for another five years.”
He’s confident in his staff though, particularly the unnamed half-brother who seems to function as a chief counsel, pharmacist, campaign manager, and doctor. Most importantly, he’s overseeing the litigious Ohioan’s dozens of lawsuits against fast food establishments, big box stores, and self-help coaches that have wronged the governor in some way.
Yet despite his rising poll numbers, there’s trouble on the horizon for Kasich. He’s currently embroiled in two financial scandals, one pertaining to misuse of campaign funds. It’s alleged that he’s spent huge amounts from his war chest of quarters on tall boys, but the governor is adamant that this is another case of someone “having it out” for him.
The other will be harder to fight; in December, Kasich was caught shaking a vending machine until it fell over while on The Venetian’s closed circuit camera system prior to that night’s debate. Again, Kasich is sanguine. “My half-brother, he works for the vending machine company, and he tells me they just write it off when that happens.”
Time will tell if Kasich’s incredible momentum will continue. He does have a demonstrable history of leaving jobs and locations after short periods of time. He’s also fighting more well-organized, better funded campaigns. But no one can deny he’s tapped into the most powerful force in politics: resentment.