John Kasich finally enters the primary spotlight on Tuesday night as a critical player, at least in his home state of Ohio. Recent polling in the Buckeye State ahead of Tuesday’s winner-take-all, 66-delegate Republican primary shows the governor either tied or narrowly leading Donald Trump. A dead heat in one’s home state doesn’t sound like anything to brag about, because it isn’t. But given that polling trends are in Kasich’s favor and the fact that he has the machinery of the Ohio Republican Party and Marco Rubio’s (unrequited) support, he is well-positioned to edge out Trump. More importantly, Kasich is in far better shape to win his home state on Tuesday than Rubio is his. In the unusually important race for a distant third-place finish in overall delegates before July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Kasich would begin to catch and eventually surpass Rubio if the senator drops out after a likely roasting in his own home state.
For Kasich, eventually overtaking Rubio in delegates would position him as the only remaining “establishment” candidate in a race tumbling toward a contested convention. Don’t be confused by Kasich’s grinning, cheery attitude. For him to do what he needs to do to win the nomination, which is presumably the reason why he’s still bothering to run for president, he would have to shatter the Republican Party, ostensibly in order to save it.
Right now Kasich is fourth overall, trailing Rubio by 100 delegates. After Tuesday’s contests, a majority of delegates will have already been allocated, and Cruz and Trump combined can be expected to continue eating the lion’s share of what’s left. That will make it nearly impossible for Kasich to catch up to either Cruz or Trump in the delegate count, but he can certainly surpass Rubio. Kasich closes two-thirds of the gap between him and Rubio just with an Ohio win and a Trump win in Florida. If Rubio then drops out, Kasich could try to build his delegate count in remaining moderate or establishment-friendly states like Wisconsin, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oregon, Washington, and most importantly, California. The bronze medal—and what remains of the “establishment” imprimatur heading into a possible contested convention—would be his.
Then it would be a matter of what function Kasich intended to perform from his third-place perch with his few hundred delegates. It could be that he’s just staying in the race to help the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party deny the race-baiting mogul delegates. If his intentions were purely selfless, though, he would drop out after winning Ohio and start working—along with Rubio, and everyone else—to boost Cruz’s chances in a one-on-one contest against Trump. But dropping out after winning Ohio and witnessing Rubio crash and burn in Florida would be both highly weird and something that Kasich has shown no indication of doing. He apparently still fancies the prospect of winning the nomination through the only remaining available route for him. “Could you think of anything cooler than a [contested] convention?” Kasich said earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
One can imagine vast numbers of people who can think of cooler things than a contested Republican convention. For starters: Trump voters, who so far represent a strong plurality of Republican voters and against whose preference such a convention would be orchestrated. Also: Cruz voters, who may not like the idea of a Trump nomination but understand that the GOP establishment wouldn’t have much use for him in a contested convention scenario, either.
Here is the ugly way that such a scenario might play out to the benefit of John Kasich. The party establishment, as represented by 1,237-plus delegates, would dismiss both Trump and Cruz as unacceptable, despite them finishing first and second in the delegate count and together representing the preferences of a majority of Republican voters. Unless the party migrates back to this joker, or to some other “white knight” option, Kasich would be the party’s default man.
The image of the party leaping past Trump and Cruz and nominating an establishment-approved distant–third-place finisher in a cycle defined by hatred of the political establishment would in and of itself lead to party-destroying levels of rage among GOP voters. The hilariously corrupt process through which such a circumvention of Republican popular will would be accomplished would intensify that anger tenfold.
In a Bloomberg Politics piece published Monday morning, Sasha Issenberg takes an early look at how individual campaigns would attempt to wrangle free-agent delegates in the absence of official party “brokers.” Though the national GOP establishment has been defanged as a political force, state-level party establishments are still competent political forces. As Issenberg writes, state party establishments—led by the 31 sitting Republican governors—are able to stack delegations with friendly faces malleable to top-down pressure.
Delegates will be Republican Party loyalists, and their votes can be bought with promises of advancement within the Republican Party or say … money. “There is nothing in the RNC’s rules that prohibits delegates from cutting a deal for their votes,” Issenberg writes, “and lawyers say it is unlikely that federal anti-corruption laws would apply to convention horse-trading.” Noted billionaire Donald J. Trump would seem likely to have the upper hand if it comes down to winning delegates through pure cash bribes. But delegates who side with Trump in a contested convention also risk reprimand from local and state party organizations.
Kasich’s path to the presidential nomination involves winning his home state and perhaps a handful more, racking up a few hundred delegates, getting the party establishment to change certain rules at the convention to allow his name to even be entered for the nomination, and then using the full corrupt heft of various party establishments to offer money and jobs to delegates in order to corral a majority. It would also mean leaping past the two top delegate earners as allocated by voting. All of this would be defended as allowed within the Republican Party’s “rules,” which will not be an acceptable excuse to Republican voters who already believe that the official GOP is a rigged, corrupt institution. One can hardly think of a better validation of that view than a Kasich nomination and the substantially undemocratic strings that would have to be pulled to get there.