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Kasich speech to Democratic convention follows years of building conservative credentials

2016 rival to Trump didn’t attend GOP convention in home state

The Republican pedigree of former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who speaks Monday night at the Democratic National Convention, goes back at least as far as his days as an aggressive budget hawk under Speaker Newt Gingrich.
The Republican pedigree of former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who speaks Monday night at the Democratic National Convention, goes back at least as far as his days as an aggressive budget hawk under Speaker Newt Gingrich. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As a House member and initially as the Republican governor of the Ohio, John Kasich was known for his ardent conservatism — one of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s loyal lieutenants, an architect of the 1997 balanced budget agreement who later fought unions and abortion in the Buckeye State.

But Monday night, the lifelong Republican told the Democratic National Convention that all Americans should vote for former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I know the measure of the man,” said Kasich, noting that he has known the longtime Delaware politician for 30 years. “He’s reasonable, faithful, respectful, and you know, no one pushes Joe around.”

Kasich, 68, said his attachment to his political party “holds second place to my responsibility to my country.”

“Joe Biden is a man for our times,” he said. “Times that call for all of us to take off our partisan hats and put our nation first, for ourselves and, of course, for our children.”

President Donald Trump, who beat Kasich in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, called his former rival “a major loser.” And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said he was in no way representative of the party.

But Kasich told CQ Roll Call that his appearance should come as no surprise to people who have paid attention to his career.

“I’m not in a different swim lane,” he said in an interview earlier Monday. “This is who I’ve been all my lifetime.”

Kasich was one of four Republicans to speak Monday night, along with former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, a onetime New Jersey governor; Meg Whitman, CEO of Quibi and the 2010 GOP nominee for California governor; and former Rep. Susan Molinari of New York.

Kasich has made his concerns about Trump clear since the two competed in 2016. He was so disturbed by Trump’s nomination that he wouldn’t set foot in the hall at the Republican National Convention in 2016, even though it was held in Cleveland.

Trump has not won him over since then.“I can put my concerns about my country or state or community ahead of party,” said Kasich, who was one of the last candidates left in the GOP presidential competition with Trump and ended up only winning his home state.

History of going his own way

Kasich said that even when he was considered a loyal lieutenant to Gingrich, the speaker after Republicans wrested control of the House from Democrats in 1994, he often opted to go his own way.

He partnered with Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, a liberal Democrat from Oakland, California, in an attempt to kill the $1 billion-per-plane B-2 Bomber, forcing the Air Force to build 22 instead of the 132 it wanted.

He teamed up with Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., on a bill to increase rewards for federal employees and defense contractors who report wasteful practices.

And he partnered with moderate Minnesota Democratic Rep. Timothy J. Penny for a budget plan that would have cut $90 billion over five years — a bill that came within a few votes of passing the House.

“When John was in the House, even though he was very conservative, he always had Democratic friends,” said former Rep. David L. Hobson, R-Ohio, who served with Kasich in Congress.

Kasich said such bipartisan partnerships would be unthinkable today, which is one reason he agreed to tape a speaking part for the convention.

“Somebody needs to be standing up, saying, ‘Enough of this,’” he said. “Enough of this blind partisanship and rage that comes with it.”

He said when he was asked to speak at the convention, “the only question in my mind was, ‘Did I need to do that?’”

“And I thought about it and thought, ‘Why not? Why shouldn’t I?’”

Democrats hope for GOP gut-check

Former Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Leland, who has known Kasich since both were undergraduates at Ohio State University, said Kasich’s decision to weigh in will serve as a gut-check for Republicans.

“This isn’t about being a Democrat or Republican any more,” Leland said. “This is about people who are patriots who are coming together to defend the republic. … There are Republicans who are going to check their conscience after hearing from John Kasich.”

He compared Kasich’s decision to speak to Republicans and pro-union Democrats coming together in the 1860s to support Abraham Lincoln.

“This is a unique time in American history,” Leland said.

History of audacity

Kasich, who has spent the last two years as a commentator for CNN, has a history of bullheadedness and audacity — traits that have simultaneously infuriated people and helped him get things done.

His first entree into politics was when, as a mop-haired college freshman in 1970, he complained about his dorm to Ohio State’s president — a meeting that culminated, weirdly, in Kasich meeting President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office later that year.

As a fifth-term House member, he got booted off the stage at a Grateful Dead concert.

And Trump was not the first GOP presidential nominee he butted heads with. In 2012, he was slow to embrace nominee Mitt Romney, in part because Romney’s grim take on the economy was at odds with Kasich’s argument that the Ohio economy was thriving. Romney later campaigned for Kasich in 2016.

Kasich’s unpredictability bled into his policy stances.

Backed Clinton impeachment, abortion limits

As a House member, he voted in favor of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. But he also backed the assault weapons ban in 1994.

As governor, he embraced Medicaid expansion over the objections of his own party. But he also championed a bill that would have ended collective bargaining for public employees and signed a bill essentially barring all abortions for women after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“If I worried about who would get mad at me, I’d never get out of bed,” he said.

On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez called him an “anti-choice extremist.”

“It’s great that Kasich has woken up & realized the importance of supporting a Biden-Harris ticket. I hope he gets through to GOP voters,” the New York Democrat said. “Yet also, something tells me a Republican who fights against women’s rights doesn’t get to say who is or isn’t representative of the Dem party.”

Kasich said his endorsement of Biden is not a thumb in the eye of his party, but rather, a chance to “stop the yelling and screaming.”

The two knew of each other when they both served in Congress, but the acquaintanceship blossomed in 2017, when Biden invited Kasich to speak at a forum on bipartisanship at the University of Delaware.

“If someone asked me to support any Democrat, no, I wouldn’t do that,” Kasich said. “But Joe is the kind of guy who can help us get back together again. I just want to return to something a little bit more normal.”

Biden campaign co-chairman Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., said the decision to include Republicans at the convention is part of an attempt to ensure “that every segment of the country that supports the Biden-Harris ticket has a chance to express why they’re supporting.”

“We are fighting for the soul of the country,” he said.

GOP questions value of speech

Trump said Kasich “never even came close” in the 2016 presidential race.

“John was a loser as a Republican,” the president said. “And as a Democrat, he’ll be an even greater loser. … People don’t like him, people don’t trust him.”

Jeff Sadosky, a Republican consultant with ties to Ohio politics, said he thought Kasich’s speech was aimed at independent voters because Kasich has little appeal at this point among Ohio Republicans.

“You are not taking a principled conservative or Republican stand about the path the party is taking when you show up and do it at the Democratic convention,” he said.

Barry Bennett, a GOP consultant who worked for multiple Ohio Republicans and helped Trump’s 2016 campaign, was more blunt.

“Unemployed politician desperately seeking audience,” he said.

Kate Ackley and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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