OKATIE, South Carolina—The Republican establishment is terrified of Donald Trump. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is more or less begging Trump to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric about immigration, GOP megadonors want to make sure he never makes it to the first primary debate, and even Fox News is doing all it can to give the once-and-future reality TV star second thoughts about showing up to that opening debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6.
Conservatives have good reason to be scared. Given his poll numbers, Trump is looking like a lock to crash the GOP’s first debate and bring his particular brand of bloviated bigotry along with him. For a party that wants to attract Latino voters in 2016—or, at the very least, not actively repel them like it did in 2012—Trump’s the last man it wants in front of the camera.
Lost in all the Republican fretting about what Trump’s bombastic brand will do to the party’s own image, though, is another potential wild card who could shake up the debate as much or more than the carnival barker with the $100 million private jet. John Kasich, the popular two-term Ohio governor who has been dismissed as a Jon Huntsman-like moderate afterthought, might actually do more damage to mainstream Republicans than Trump. While Trump’s caustic comments about immigrants may leave Republicans with a general election hangover, it’s Kasich’s more nuanced views of reform that could spell bigger headaches for the establishment favorites.
Kasich, of course, has to make it on the debate stage first. He currently sits three places and about two points away from snagging the 10th and final invite to a primetime event that will take place in his own backyard. But there are plenty of reasons to believe Kasich is due for a surge. For starters, he’ll most likely get a bump after he makes his campaign official on July 21, a burst that doesn’t have to be lasting or large to be meaningful since Fox News will send out debate invites two weeks later. Meanwhile, the three candidates he’ll probably need to pass have largely stalled: Carly Fiorina is short on cash, Rick Santorum is short on fans, and Chris Christie’s bid appears to have come four years and one traffic jam too late. Add to that the boost Kasich will get from the $1 million statewide ad blitz that his allies recently launched on his behalf in New Hampshire and the former House budget chairman is a decent bet to be on stage when the curtain rises.
And if that happens? Well, then what promises to be a circus may have some unexpected substance to go along with it. All eyes will still be on Trump, of course, but it’d be Kasich who could make things truly uncomfortable for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and the rest of the mainstream candidates who are trying to appeal to the disaffected white working-class voters they’ll need to win the GOP nomination while still not completely alienating Latino and moderate voters ahead of the general election.
Consider what will happen when Trump trots out some version of his xenophobic and incendiary comments about many Mexican immigrants being rapists and criminals on the debate stage: Bush and Rubio can score a few easy points by simply admonishing him and moving on. In the process, they’d come off looking responsible and compassionate—who isn’t compared to Trump?—while not having to actually talk about specifics that divide the base. But if Kasich is up there on stage, too, there’d be no such easy out for Bush, Rubio, or even Scott Walker, all of whom have struggled to fully explain their shifting immigration views.
Kasich is an outlier among Republicans less for what he believes about immigration and more for what he’s willing to say and how he’s willing to say it. Like most of the field, he’s not pushing a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are currently in the country illegally. Unlike many of his rivals, though, Kasich is vocal about not ruling it out completely. “I don’t like the idea of citizenship when people jump the line, [but] we may have to do it,” he said at the Republican Governors Association late last year. “Everybody in this country has to feel as though they have an opportunity.” Asked about his views on the unofficial campaign trail this past week in South Carolina, Kasich remained on message: “I’m not for it, but I wouldn’t take it off the table because I want to get an immigration deal.”
If Kasich has the chance to make the same case on the debate stage, the rest of the field will have to get specific in ways they never would if the conversation were to be led by Trump. Are they completely ruling out a path to citizenship? Or do they believe it belongs in the conversation? Mainstream candidates can tack right to help themselves in the primary and possibly hurt themselves in the general, or they can inch left with an eye on the general election and possibly damage their chances of even winning the nomination. This is the dance that inspired Mitt Romney’s infamous “self-deportation” line during the 2012 primary debates.
The immigration issue could be a major headache for the GOP’s Big Three this time around as well, and Kasich could make it worse. Bush was once for a path to citizenship and as recently as last year described the act of coming to the United States illegally as “an act of love.” Today, he’s more difficult to pin down but says he wants a path to “earned legal status,” not full-on citizenship. Rubio helped write the Senate’s immigration bill that included a path to citizenship in 2013 and once thought immigration would be his signature issue. Today, he’s distanced himself from the deal that many conservatives derisively dubbed “amnesty” and, those rare times he does talk about immigration, prefers to discuss “securing the border.” Walker, meanwhile, was once for a path to citizenship like many of his fellow governors but today is talking about curbing legal immigration. If these guys are going to have to talk about immigration during the primaries, they’d much rather have a shallow debate with Trump than a more complicated one with Kasich.
None of this is to suggest that Kasich can mount a real challenge for the GOP nomination. Most likely, he can’t. As Huntsman’s doomed 2012 campaign illustrated, conservative apostasy is rarely the way to win over the conservative base, and Kasich has committed his fair share. But Kasich doesn’t need to be a legitimate challenger to avoid being largely ignored on the debate stage like Huntsman was. The attention Trump will bring to immigration gives Kasich a clear opening to make some noise in the opposite direction if he wants to.
Perhaps just as important, Kasich has already proven that, unlike Huntsman, he’s able to land his punches. Consider what he said two years ago when facing criticism from conservatives for taking billions of federal dollars as part of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion: “Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.” That defiant stance didn’t change his party’s mind about Medicaid expansion, but it presented a new, grabby, muscular argument for a moderate position on a key issue for Republicans that also co-opted traditional conservative reasoning. If he offers such frank talk about immigration on stage in Cleveland, Bush and Rubio won’t have the luxury of looking compassionate by default.
Trump is the bizarrely coiffed straw man that mainstream GOP candidates can actually somewhat safely denounce. Kasich, though, is an actual foil they’d rather never have to deal with. If he makes it on stage, the White House hopefuls will—for the first time this year—have to define themselves against their party’s center as opposed to just the fringe. That might not be as fun as watching The Donald playing a parody of himself, but it might just be a whole lot more meaningful.