Ohio Gov. John Kasich took a break from the campaign trail Sunday to sign a state law removing funding for Planned Parenthood, consistent with the Republican's record as a staunchly effective pro-life governor — an image his campaign has so far sidelined, in favor of emphasizing his moderate appeal.
The Ohio legislation further prohibits the state health department from contracting with organizations that provide any abortions, or work with those who do, stripping Planned Parenthood of the $1.3 million it receives in state and federal funds.
Planned Parenthood's federal funds do not go towards abortion services, as is required by federal law with a few exceptions, such as rape. The cuts will slash funding for Ohio clinics' HIV and cancer screening, as well as programs to prevent violence against women.
"This legislation will have devastating consequences for women across Ohio," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a statement, criticizing Mr. Kasich for "cutting access to essential, basic health care."
The governor has often discussed his health care policies on the 2016 campaign trail, helping to highlight his relative moderation compared to top competitors Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as he attempts to battle Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for establishment support. He has emphasized maternal health and expanded Medicaid, a sticking point with many conservatives.
After the Ohio legislature passed the law in early February, there was little doubt Kasich, who has signed every pro-life bill to cross his gubernatorial desk, would approve it. Observers were puzzled he didn't rush home to sign it immediately after it came to his office this Thursday, since a socially conservative move could resonate with South Carolina primary voters.
Kasich hung on to a fifth-place finish in the Palmetto State primary Saturday, with just 7.6 percent. But he's achieved the goal of "Last Governor Standing," after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush finally bowed out following a fourth-place finish.
Buoyed by a second-place New Hampshire finish to Mr. Trump, Kasich's campaign has plotted out an nontraditional path to help him survive until mid-March, when northern and midwestern states, including his own Ohio, Michigan, and Massachusetts, vote and where his moderate image could help.
"Folks, it's down to the final four," he told Boston fans on Saturday, according to ABC journalist Ben Gittleson. His strategists apparently hope the race will narrow to just two: Trump vs. Kasich, whose moderation and decades of political experience could snap voters' support back to a traditional candidate. Mr. Rubio's supporters, however, doubt that Kasich can overcome growing establishment consensus around the less experienced, but more popular, Florida senator.
Rubio and Mr. Cruz describe themselves as pro-life, while Trump has adamantly-yet-vaguely said he's "evolved" his former pro-choice views. By October, he told Fox News host Chris Wallace that Planned Parenthood "should absolutely be defunded."
"I mean if you look at what's going on with that, it's terrible. And many other things should be defunded and many things should be cut," he said.
As governor, however, Kasich has a real record of putting his pro-life views into action. About half of Ohio's abortion-providing health clinics have closed since he took office.
"Ohio's reputation as a politically purple state doesn't apply to abortion," abortion-rights nonprofit the Guttmacher Institute's Elizabeth Nash told the Associated Press. "It's one of the states people look to, to see what the next restriction is going to look like." Recent limitations have included rules that women listen to the fetus' heartbeat before getting an abortion, or only use clinics that have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles.
"I think the bigger point here is John Kasich is a conservative, and he’d be very happy for your listeners to know he is a conservative – especially now that he’s competing in the South," political reporter Henry Gomez told an Ohio public radio station on Friday.
"The context of the party itself has shifted," Gomez added. "People who were considered conservative 15-20 years ago are now considered squishy and moderate-to-liberal."