The four candidates vying to be the Republican nominee in next year’s governor’s race sat down for separate twenty-minute interviews last night in a Columbus church before a crowd of more than 500 people. And there was one theme in particular that stood out – and it was about the man they all want to succeed.
This may have been the most telling moment of the forum – when moderator and Republican pollster Frank Luntz turned to the audience with two questions. “Who’s got a favorable impression of John Kasich, your governor?” There was slight applause. “Who has an unfavorable impression of him?” The applause was appreciably louder and was accompanied by cheers.
The forum was sponsored by Citizens for Community Values, a conservative Christian group that’s fought against abortion rights and same-sex marriage, among other causes. It’s no secret that Kasich has a less than positive image with some conservative voters – some because of his support for Medicaid expansion, and others because Kasich has publicly feuded with President Donald Trump and refused to endorse him. And these voters are likely to turn out for next May’s primary. So the four Republican candidates for governor are all interested in speaking directly to them. Current Congressman Jim Renacci of northeast Ohio was the first on stage, and therefore the first to address Luntz’ question about the direction of the state under Kasich’s leadership. Renacci said Kasich started out “perfect”, but when he ran for president and lost, Renacci said he also lost his conservative values. “This is problematic. We cannot have a governor who comes in with Republican values and goes out with Democrat values or independent values and think that the state is going in the right direction. And we can’t have people – so at that point in time I would criticize the governor, and I would criticize him if was sitting here.”
Attorney General Mike DeWine said he’s known Kasich for most of the nearly four decades he’s been in public office, and praised him – at first. “I think by and large he’s done a very good job.” But DeWine, who has built part of his campaign on his lawsuit against five prescription painkiller makers, was quick to follow that up with saying as governor he’d bring into the cabinet a point person on the opioid crisis, “who will focus every single day when they get up till the time they go to bed, I hope, on the opiate problem and the drug problem. We have not had – we have not had a sense of urgency.”
As Kasich’s running mate both times, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor has been closer to Kasich than the other three candidates by far – and he said earlier this year he would endorse her. But Taylor made it clear she has significant differences of opinion with her boss. “Some of the decisions made have not reflected what I consider to be good, conservative values.” Such as, asked Luntz? “Medicaid expansion.”
As head of the state’s insurance department until March, Taylor was a leading voice against the Affordable Care Act, and said she worked to make sure Ohio didn’t set up an insurance marketplace as other states did. But she faults Kasich for his decision to expand Medicaid – which she suggests is tantamount to support for Obamacare. “The governor, obviously, has publicly advocated to keep. I personally think that Obamacare needs to be repealed. And I think that we need a state solution.”
Kasich has worked with Democratic Colorado governor John Hickenlooper on a plan that he says would stabilize the insurance markets until the Affordable Care Act can be repealed and replaced.
And finally Secretary of State Jon Husted got to weigh in, and brought it back to Republican voters who may have cast presidential primary ballots for Kasich last year, but expected him to back the GOP nominee in the end. “People have been really frustrated that he didn’t go to Cleveland and support him in the convention, support Trump in the convention, that he seemingly’s been trying to, with his words, kind of not support the president or maybe even undermine the president on occasions, that he’s not focused on Ohio as he once was.”
This was the first forum where all four Republican candidates were present, though they weren’t on stage at the same time. They had all been confirmed to attend the party’s state dinner in July, and all but Taylor appeared for short speeches. And none of those speeches mentioned Kasich at all.