John Kasich’s Forlorn Hope

His home state is hosting the GOP convention. So why hasn’t the Ohio governor endorsed Donald Trump?

Matt Rourke / AP / The Atlantic

Updated at 12:49 p.m. ET

During the U.S. Republican presidential primary this year, John Kasich competed in a one-man congeniality contest. While Donald Trump and the other candidates attacked each other freely, the Ohio governor angled himself as the only nice guy running—a Bible-quoting, hug-giving, consummate compassionate conservative who just couldn’t stomach the divisiveness on the trail.

Now, Kasich wants to see his party’s nominee change his campaign: He won’t support Trump until he adopts a more positive style. Kasich’s feel-good candidacy did him no favors in the contentious primary season, and now he’s hoping to encourage civility in a man beloved for not being very civil at all.

Kasich is part of a virtually powerless group of Republican insiders who tried choosing a middle way on this election. Its members aren’t outright rejecting Trump like Mitt Romney and others. Nor are they outright supporting him. Instead, they seem to be coaxing Trump to do something, anything, to make them feel good about his nomination, which will be finalized at the GOP convention in July. For months, prominent Republicans like Maine Senator Susan Collins have said Trump needs to change his tone and his rhetoric in order to earn their support. When Trump inevitably does not heed their advice, some back him anyway: House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example.

But Kasich has not yet reached that point, signaling in recent interviews that he wants to see improvement in Trump’s temperament. “I don’t like when he’s attacking and putting people down,” Kasich told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in May interview. “I’ve made it clear that I need to see a positive approach. And, you know, if there’s one not forthcoming, you know, it’s gonna be a real problem for me to endorse.” By June, he still hadn’t seen what he wanted to see, telling MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough “either there’s going to be dramatic change, or I can’t find my way there.” In the meantime, Kasich is keeping his delegates to himself, too.

Kasich has the profile of someone who should have great influence: a popular sitting governor of a swing state that’s a must-win in November. But his sway over his party and its nominee is questionable—not only because he lost the primary badly, winning only Ohio, but because voices like his aren’t in fashion. He was frank during the primaries, as he always has been, but not as frank as Trump. He was establishment in the year of the outsider. And his carefully crafted public image—that of a happy warrior—didn’t land when all voters wanted was anger. Kasich is the one who has really changed, from a budget-hawk congressman of the Gingrich era, unafraid to start a fight, to a putatively moderate presidential candidate with a can’t-we-all-just-get-along demeanor.

Unfortunately for Kasich, his party’s nominee has shown no signs he’s willing to take similar steps, even if Trump allies have privately lobbied Kasich's team, as CNN reported this week. He has asked for Kasich’s support, and even said he would vet Kasich for the vice presidency, but he has shown no indication that he’s receptive to the governor’s guidance. Trump “hasn’t responded well to what others perceived as leverage so far,” Tom Ingram, a former Kasich campaign adviser and seasoned Republican operative, told me. “He’s kind of out-Trumped them.”

Kasich does have means of persuading his delegates to vote one way or another. In late May, a few weeks after suspending his campaign, the governor told his 161 delegates they would be bound to him through the convention. He won 66 of those delegates in his home state of Ohio, the only state that gave him a victory this primary season. Other delegates were picked up along the way in 15 other states and in Washington, D.C. At the time of his directive, an anonymous Kasich aide told The Washington Post the governor thought it was a savvy move in this crazy election year, and believed his delegates could be used to convince Trump to change his ways. An aide told a local politics reporter in Cleveland the same. He wasn’t the only 2016 candidate to hold onto delegates: Florida Senator Marco Rubio wouldn’t release his at first, before changing his mind. And Texas Senator Ted Cruz has reserved some of his delegates, possibly as a way to exert influence over the party platform.

But Kasich’s opposition to Trump still remains chiefly symbolic. He does not have enough delegates to deny Trump the nomination or even make the presumptive nominee particularly worried. “I think they can encourage Donald, but there’s no bargaining power there,” Charlie Black, a former campaign adviser and longtime friend of Kasich, told me when I asked if Kasich or Cruz have any leverage. Still, Ingram suggested, there’s value in what Kasich is doing. “I think it’s appropriate for people like Governor Kasich to weigh in and express their concerns and their aspirations for the party’s nominee,” he said. “And to use whatever tools the rules and the process provide them.” The Republican convention will be held in Ohio this year, and typically governors of hosting states give short welcome speeches, Black said. But so far, Kasich doesn't seem open to giving one.

Perhaps Kasich is simply playing the long game, anticipating that his style of politics will eventually be trendy again. If so, he wouldn’t want to risk supporting a nominee who remains deeply unpopular in the electorate. Kasich still has a couple years left in his term as governor, and his approval ratings are high. He can focus on his work in Ohio and wait out the wild politics that have made Trump the Republican nominee. In the meantime, Kasich plans to help at least some of his fellow Republicans with their races this year, even if he’s not campaigning for Trump. “I’m going to travel for Republicans. I’m going to help the ticket in Ohio. But I’ve learned over the course of my career that I have to live with myself and with my family,” he told Yahoo News in June.

And Kasich will presumably have loyal followers going into the convention. Janet Weir Creighton, a county commissioner from northeast Ohio, told me she will be voting Republican no matter what in November. But when it comes to the convention, she said, “I am supporting my governor to the very end until he decides what he is going to do.”