All things are clear with 20/20 hindsight, even or maybe especially in politics. Of course President Obama was going to win reelection. Of course Donald Trump would mesmerize us as the breakout showman candidate of summer 2015.
And of course John Kasich would catch on in New Hampshire – home to the all-important first primary – and snag one of the biggest Republican strategists in the state.
When news broke Tuesday evening that Tom Rath had signed on as a senior national adviser to the Ohio governor’s presidential campaign, it made perfect sense. A month ago, this reporter was sitting in Mr. Rath’s spacious office in downtown Concord, N.H., listening to him ruminate about the 2016 race, and all the presidential candidates he had advised before, including Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.
He had just come off a 10-year relationship with Mr. Romney, a two-time candidate, and Rath wasn’t sure he was ready to love again. But he had that gleam in his eye. And he was being wooed with late-night calls, mainly from candidates’ staff. He mentioned phone calls from only one (at the time likely) candidate: Governor Kasich.
“I might have one more race in me,” Rath told the Monitor.
Two days later, there was Rath again, at an exclusive event at the Elks Lodge in Portsmouth: the 90th birthday party for Ruth Griffin, the grand dame of New Hampshire Republican politics. Many other prominent N.H. Republicans were there, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Sen. Judd Gregg, and former Sen. John Sununu, who had already signed on as director of Kasich’s super political action committee. The only presidential candidate (aspiring or announced) invited to the party was Kasich, and aside from Mrs. Griffin, he was the main attraction.
Kasich announced his presidential campaign nine days later. The week before, we reporters following him in New Hampshire – two from the main Ohio papers and me – peppered him with questions. Wasn’t it kind of late to get in? Nope, he replied confidently. What about fundraising? He had the numbers ready: In eight weeks of fundraising, his super PAC, New Day for America, had pulled in $12 million and with pledges, $14 million, he said. Not bad.
And what about that crucial first debate? At the time, on July 12, Kasich was polling nationally at around 1 percent – definitely not high enough to make the main stage, the one that would include Mr. Trump and guaranteed gargantuan TV ratings. But his July 21 announcement gained him some notice, and a little bump in the polls, landing him the last spot in the prime-time debate.
At the debate, Kasich gained more notice. He defended his decision to go against party orthodoxy and expand Medicaid in Ohio. He boasted of how his state went “from an $8 billion hole ... to a $2 billion surplus,” a claim that PolitiFact rates as “mostly true.” He spoke, as he often does on the trail, of wanting to help the mentally ill and the drug-addicted.
Perhaps most memorably, he talked about the same-sex wedding of a friend he had just attended, and how if one of his teenage daughters happened to be gay, “of course I would love them and accept them.”
“Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith,” Kasich said.
Kasich seems a natural fit for New Hampshire Republicans, who tend to be more moderate than in other parts of the country. Unlike Republicans nationally, a majority of N.H. Republicans support gay marriage.
The latest poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters has Kasich running third (at 12 percent), behind Trump (18 percent) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (13 percent). That's up from 11th place (at 1 percent) in March.
It’s also worth noting that Kasich went up on TV early in New Hampshire with a $1.5 million ad buy, before he announced his candidacy. At Griffin’s birthday party, attendees gave the ad a thumbs-up.
Kasich still has his work cut out. He’s a little scruffy and can be prickly. But he won the Tom Rath primary, which means a lot. Not that most New Hampshirites know who Rath is, but in Kasich, they will see a candidate who is now benefiting from his wisdom.