MADISON, WI — A lot has happened since I last checked in with John Kasich on the campaign trail two months ago.
Since then, the plucky, leather-faced homeless governor of Ohio rode the momentum from his second place finish in New Hampshire to a landslide victory in his home state six weeks later. The same night Marco Rubio dropped out after losing Florida, Kasich greedily gobbled up all 66 of Ohio’s delegates like a big sloppy plate of pork and beans.
Ever the underdog, Kasich remains in the race, fighting now in another Midwestern state he hopes will offer him the hot stews and delegates he needs to go all the way to the Republican convention in July. On Monday I spent the day on the trail with Kasich in Wisconsin to gauge his chances of becoming our next Commander-in-Chief.
It’s a cool, sunny morning. After a nonstop red-eye bus ride from Brooklyn, I arrive at the Madison bus depot, where I am personally greeted by the Governor himself, who wobbles right up to me with his hat in his hand.
“‘Scuse me, sir, my son is very sick — he’s a veteran you know — and I was hopin’ you could help me out with the price of pills — they’re very expensive — and… hey, Carl, is that you?!”
Kasich’s eyes grow as big as if he’d just seen a honey baked ham on a windowsill. “I’ll be damned, Carl Dinkley out from, uh, Tacoma way, yeah? How’s tricks there, old top?”
As a veteran journalist I’m used to knowing VIPs on an intimate level, so it is no surprise when Gov. Kasich not only recognizes me but gives me a big, thorough hug. We share a moment of laughter when he feels my hand clutching my wallet in my back pocket.
“Hell, Carl, let me introduce you to the campaign gang. We’re camped out just a couple miles up these rails. Just keep an eye peeled for the yard dicks, would ya?”
I’m greeted by the smell of baked beans simmering in a gasoline drum when I enter Gov. Kasich’s makeshift Wisconsin headquarters/hobo encampment outside of Madison. I squat down on a stack of discarded PVC pipes to watch the Governor huddle with top aides around the fire.
“Carl, you can see my team’s gotten bigger since I won that dog and pony show in Ohio. This over here is Admiral Joe, he’s my chief strategist and a bonafide veteran of the Korean, Vietnamese, Grenadan, Iraqi, Irani, the Siamese, and Nicaraguan wars.”
“Pleasure to meet you, civilian. I’m carrying five pounds of shrapnel in my leg, a gift from Mr. Ho Chi Minh, so the least you could do is help me out with a couple bucks.”
“And this over here is No Name, ’cause he lost his name playing five card stud. He’s my delegate counter.”
“What’s the good word, Carl?”
“Yeah, that’s right, Carl,” says Kasich, lighting a cigar stub, “we’re taking this campaign all the way to the damn convention. And we’re gonna win the whole shebang!”
I notice that Kasich is extremely optimistic, even by his usual happy-go-lucky standards. This may be in part because of the small white bars he keeps taking out of a bottle and popping in his mouth.
“Don’t mind that, Carlos, I got a script for these. They’re to help with my, uh, you, my doctor’s orders.”
After introductions the discussion turns to next week’s primary, where recent news has been bleak. According to poll numbers No Name has drawn in the dirt, Kasich is in third place, far behind Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Furthermore, because the Governor personally kited too many checks upstate in the 80s, he only appears on the ballot in half the state’s counties under fake names like “Jerry Kaepernick” and “Jose Consuela.” On top of all that, limited government group Club for Growth is running $1 million in negative advertising claiming Kasich and his gang are a “drain on the welfare system.”
Just one of these would be enough to make a lesser candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio cry. Not Kasich, who spits defiantly.
“Phooey! Wisconsin is Kasich country. I got a lot of friends up here… Oily Pete… Three Finger Frank… Admiral Joe… Lemmy the Wino… Lot of friends.”
“That’s not all, Johnny,” warns Admiral Joe. “One of our campaign spies was rifling through the trash cans for empties outside the Governor’s mansion when he overheard Scott Walker saying he’s going to endorse Ted Cruz.”
A chill falls over the meeting. Even the unflappable John Kasich seems disturbed.
“Well, uh, just as long as they don’t get in our way or violate our right to charge our phones in the restroom at Culver’s, then, we should be just fine, boys,” mutters the Governor. “Now then, what’s on the agenda today?”
“You have a rally at La Follette High School at 1, then a nap at the bus station at 3, then we close the day with Evening Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church.”
“Is that church heated?”
“All right, boyos, grab your bindlesticks and let’s get on the trail!”
Even in this fraught atmosphere of a possible contested convention, an unusually angry electorate, and political violence, Kasich still delights crowds with his speeches. Today at La Folette High School, he’s talking health care to a packed auditorium.
“These guys, the Viagra guys, the fellas who make all the benzos, they’re hogging ‘em. I’m supposed to last a month with 30 K-pins? And I’m not going back to CVS, they acted like my money didn’t spend. The pharmacists, the security guards–”
The crowd finishes his sentence in a resounding “THEY DIDN’T HEAR ME OUT!”
“They Didn’t Hear Me Out” is the new slogan of the Kasich campaign. While the ever-popular “They Had It Out For Me” got Kasich huge numbers in places like New Hampshire and handsome pity vote allotments in places like Michigan, he’s decided to take on a gentler tone. “They Didn’t Hear Me Out” banks on opportunity. If someone is refusing to hear your side of the story, it means that you’re coming from a place of hope and honesty. That’s what Kasich believes in.
“People ah, they don’t like all the negativity, all the time. When you’re trying to hop the Northern Express to get out of dodge and your bottles got flung on the track, yeah, you’re angry. But to take that anger it’s just, you know…there was a guy when I was a kid, we called him Dirty Jerry. That was on account he fought for the Kaiser. Now–”
Before Kasich can finish another one of his tales of utterly confusing homespun wisdom, Admiral Joe is caught up in a commotion.
“You have no right to film me! Are you detaining me? Am I being detained?” Joe shouts.
A burly man in a United States Marine Corps shirt is holding his smartphone directly in front of Joe’s face. A second angry man is interrogating him.
“I do not have the right to detain you, but I do not believe you earned that uniform. Why do you have an NCO’s ensign while claiming admiral rank? You better start talking, motherfucker,” the man spits.
“I uh, you’re not the boss of me. I earned this in Korea when you were in your pop’s loins,” Joe responds.
“You are wearing regulation Navy boats with Army digital camo pants. People earned that uniform. You are violating US bill-”
“It’s my son’s. I’m a veteran but, uh, my uniform from the Grenadine Campaign got shrunk in the wash. My son was in Operation Freedom Cartridge in Iraq, and he said I could wear his pants. He’s a commissioned lieutenant in 8th Special Forces Boat Detachment, and he’s gonna think it’s pretty goddamn funny that one of the queers from the Marine Corps questioned his pop’s service,” Joe stammers as sweat pours down his face.
“You claim to have served in Korea, but you can’t be older than 35!” shouts the man filming.
“Fellas…this isn’t….you gotta hear this guy out,” Kasich interjects.
I’m used to seeing campaigns spurn their surrogates and staffers when they come under fire, but that’s not what I see with Kasich and Admiral Joe. Through a series of utterly incoherent diatribes about his childhood, public bathrooms, and bottle deposits, Kasich leaves the angry interlopers befuddled. They don’t realize it, but they’ve been hoodwinked by a master politician. Kasich’s masterful ability to defuse a heated confrontation is a refreshing change of pace from the violence being stoked at Donald Trump’s rallies.
At the bus depot following the high school event, I have the chance to ask the Governor some hard questions about his strategy to win the Republican nomination. Kasich has just 143 delegates, a fraction of what Trump and Cruz have. And with more than half the primaries over, it’s mathematically impossible for him to catch up. So why doesn’t he just drop out?
Asked by reporter to “name one” state where he can win – Kasich says: “Yeah I mean we’ll see, yeah. No, I’m not going to be predicting…”
— Cassie Spodak (@CassieSpodak) March 28, 2016
“Look, I can’t just end it…” Kasich mutters. “Cal, I got–I took out a loan. It was a subprime, they fooled me, basically. I told ‘em it was for a project, and this is it. This whole thing, it’s built off that loan. If I just stop, let everyone go, the bank is gonna go after me for fraud. I’ve been using some of the money to pay back other loans, some of it for bus tickets, some for my business investments, and well, that’s how it goes. And I have priors, you know. Not for stuff I did but…people always gotta put stuff on you. Says more about them, I always say.”
“But Governor Kasich, even if you make it to the convention, Trump has a huge lead. Cruz has hundreds more delegates than you. How could you claim the nomination?”
Kasich’s eyes widen, and he licks his lips.
“Oh boy. The convention. You ever been to a convention, Carl? Why, there’s gonna be roast chickens there, plump as a King’s mistress, plus all types of fixings. Electrical outlets as far as the eye can see. But there’s gonna be another kind of bird there, Cole. The great American turkey.”
As the governor explains to me, the convention will be full of “easy marks.” He has fond memories of asking Jeb Bush to borrow his phone for a “quick call” then running off with it as the Floridian crossed his arms and didn’t even pursue him; of the time he told Marco Rubio that someone was looking for him then siphoned gas from his campaign bus, selling it, and spending the proceeds on “a meal fit for a king” at Red Lobster; of all the times he swiped Frank Luntz’s shoes. The way he sees it, these gullible establishment Republicans are the kinds of people that the Cleveland convention will be brimming with.
“These kids from their Ivy colleges and their big cities, they’re gonna be looking down on me, then BAM! I got one over on ‘em,” says the Governor as he dons a sleeping mask and makes himself comfortable on the bus depot bench. “And if there’s a second ballot, I like my chances. I’ve gotten out of some real scrapes in my life, and this could be the biggest one. I see some ripe old turkeys waiting to get plucked by old Cuyahoga John.”
At Culver’s enjoying a round of complimentary waters, the Kasich campaign runs into its first spot of danger.
“Dagnammit! I think I hear Cruz!” No Name exclaims.
“Are you sure? He can’t be here. Not now. No no no!” Kasich says in a panicked loud whisper.
“I dun heard him. I heard that screechy voice of him, talkin’ about ‘they have conceded their point.’ We gotta skidaddle.”
“Carlton, there’s some bad stuff about Cruz,” Kasich whispers as he gets close to my face.
“Well, he’s been accused of being less than well-liked among establishment GOP rank-”
“NO! Bad stuff. All the guys who ride the rails, we know about him. Curly Joe out in Akron, they found him cut ear to ear. Three guys I know, they say Cruz did it. Lured him into an alleyway with a pint of Thunderbird and sliced him. He gets off on it. He’s a real sicko, and he knows all the lawyers and cops. He’s a thrill killer.”
“If we triangulate our flank, we can avoid him. This is just like the Tet Offensive. They say Cruz’s eyes can see through walls. He keeps his skin so pale and loose by bathing in the blood. He’s worse than the Taliban’s Death Walkers,” Admiral Joe says confidently.
“I can’t die. Killer Cruz, oh no. My folks won’t recognize me. The city’s gonna throw me in that big unmarked grave they threw Frisco Ronnie into,” No Name cries.
“I’m the commander in chief here. I got this…just let me think,” Kasich intones. “Joe, you go in the bathroom. If they give you any grief, take this cup to show you’re a customer. He won’t go where they got cameras. No Name, you’re with me. I saw two barrels with our names on ‘em by the White Hen.”
“If they got our name on ‘em, he’s gonna know!” No Name squeals.
There’s a pause. Joe and the governor laugh.
“It’s an expression, numbskull!” Kasich says with his trademark grifter’s grin.
“Laughter in the foxhole. Only thing that kept me alive in British Mandated Palestine during the Bush War,” Joe says gravely.
Since I’m a veteran journalist who’s covered Cruz extensively and don’t really buy into the rumors of the Senator murdering hobos for sexual gratification, I’m spared the ordeal of hiding. But watching Kasich quickly formulate a ground game strategy and put it into place gives me a special view into how he won Ohio so easily. He may be craggy and destitute, but he’s a born leader. Men look to him and ask when, where, and how.
After a half hour of refreshing my Blackberry, Senator Ted Cruz and his campaign staff do in fact make their way into the Culver’s. As I recline in the booth (I just plain don’t want to look at the Senator despite the fact that I know he’s probably not a murderer), I peek across the street. No Name’s straw hat is poking out of one of the barrels, but Cruz hasn’t noticed it. Sure enough, Cruz’s squadron of grimacing malcontents is more concerned with berating the cashiers than finding drifters to gut as the Texan licks his lips in reptilian fashion. As they grab their food and give their parting shots (“and by the way, you proved my point about the sales tax!”) to the employees, Joe cautiously opens the bathroom door. Once the Cruz’s people are clearly out of our purview, he whistles loudly.
Kasich and No Name pop their heads out of the barrels.
“Another close shave, boys!” Kasich laughs.
It’s 8 PM when the team arrives for an evening mass at a Roman Catholic church in Middleton, WI. Kasich and company are grouchy from an earlier altercation over public bathroom laws at Best Buy, but are still looking forward to enjoying the hospitality that a church provides. Admiral Joe conducts a quick security sweep of the perimeter, which turns up a sign etched in a fencepost.
“See that, Carl?” says Kasich. “Good Christian folk here. Just make some Bible talk and you’ll get your fill.”
I’m impressed by the confident way the Governor handles the religious right, a major GOP voting bloc that so far has been split between Cruz and Trump. He, No Name, and Admiral Joe strut inside the church, making pleasant small talk with the parishioners and complimenting the “fine, expensive leather covers” of the Bibles. Kasich in particular is all smiles, handshakes, and “Fine weather we’re having, sir” and “God bless ya, ma’am.” I get deja vu witnessing the slick retail politician who won over diners and town halls all across New Hampshire.
We squeeze into the front row and listen to the homily, which fittingly deals with charity. Kasich nods along to Christ’s instructions to aid the poor and practically licks his chops when he hears “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
“You know, Carlo,” Kasich whispers to me, “if Christ were alive today, he’d be a hobo. Really makes you think, huh?”
When it comes time to take communion, the gang eagerly jumps in line. As Kasich kneels to take the host, the sanctity of the moment is shattered by angry shouting.
Two men wearing dog tags, one holding a camcorder, is screaming in Admiral Joe’s face.
“WHO WAS YOUR CAPTAIN, BUDDY? WHO WAS YOUR CAPTAIN? YOU DIDN’T EARN THE RIGHT TO WEAR THOSE EPAULETTES!”
Admiral Joe looks terrified by the prospect of two viral Stolen Valor gaffes in one day. He bolts out of the church, knocking over a pair of large candelabras on his way out, and starting a small fire.
The priest just stands there in total shock and disbelief. The parishioners start to panic as the fire spreads. Fitting for a man vying to be Commander-in-Chief, John Kasich is truly being tested on his ability to lead under pressure. I look for him amidst the chaos, but I don’t see him. He was right in front of me a second ago.
Before I know it, Kasich is bolting out of the sacristy carrying a big pile of cassocks and screaming, “No Name, you grab the hooch! I got these pretty dresses!”
No Name pilfers two bottles of sacramental wine and bolts fearlessly into the flames.
Kasich barrels through a stained glass window into the parking lot, yelling behind him, “This Tuesday, remember to vote for Jose Consuela! God bless you folks!” as he disappears into the night.
When I came to in the parking lot, I realized that what some observers may have viewed as sacrilegious petty larceny was, in fact, a selfless strategy to save the entire church. By jumping through the window with his body protected from the glass by the stolen vestments, Kasich created an emergency exit for the trapped worshipers. And by running through the flames out the front door with the stolen bottles of wine, No Name created ventilation that saved dozens from fatal smoke inhalation.
Yet on the bus ride back to New York the next morning, there was nary a word about Kasich’s heroics on the morning news shows. The top stories, as always, were Trump’s insults, and Cruz’s affairs, and Bernie’s misogyny, and Hillary’s e-mail crimes. Maybe a man like John Kasich just can’t get a fair shake in this rich man’s world. And maybe that’s the way John Kasich likes it. It’s like the Governor said to me when I told him he had a 0% chance of winning the nomination, “Karen, I like those odds. Now let’s get some goddamned shut-eye.”
Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman”. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at email@example.com or Tweet to @carl_diggler.
To try CAFE’s Morning Shot email, sign up here.