WASHINGTON – A week after the midterm elections, Republicans are still browsing through the jewelry store of their victories, admiring this bauble and that. Most of their Senate wins were predicted by the electoral map. The victories of many Republican governors, however, were impressive for extending the map, holding hard-earned territory or crossing demographic barriers.
There were Republican wins in Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois – which amounted to dancing in President Barack Obama’s end zone. Greg Abbott got back to George W. Bush levels of support with Hispanic voters in Texas. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin won his third election in four years.
But it is Gov. John Kasich of Ohio who deserves the award for best performance in a battleground state. It helps, of course, to have a flawed Democratic opponent. (How does one function in life for 10 years without a valid driver’s license?) Yet Kasich won a majority of union voters, three-fifths of women voters, a majority of voters under 30, two-thirds of independents, and a quarter of African-American voters.
Politicians are supposed to pretend that a favorable verdict was perfectly natural and inevitable. When I raised the African-American vote with Kasich, he responded, “I’m flabbergasted by it.” Disarming candor is Kasich’s stock and trade. And a decisive electoral victory has liberated someone who already had few inhibitions.
Describing his policy-oriented, aspirational campaign, Kasich told me in a phone interview that “When I first started, my staff completely freaked out. How are you going to get any excitement without talking about Obama? We are too caught up in ideology and partisanship in this country. When I said [during the campaign] that we need to respect the president of the United States, the AP reporter nearly passed out.
“We need to show more respect, not anger. This is not a wrestling match. There have been too many hardened hearts in this country. You are my enemy, just because you don’t think the way I think. I don’t even know how we got here. At the end of the day, it means that my side is not always totally right and the other side totally wrong.”
If Kasich mounts a run for president, the biggest challenge for reporters will be stenography. He speaks in a rush of fragments and detours. But it is possible to detect some themes in the fugue.
Kasich is an exuberantly orthodox free marketeer who has balanced budgets, reduced business regulations, privatized government services and placed a relentless emphasis on job creation. “Let me be clear,” he told me. “Unless you build a strong economy, nothing else works.”
This, however, is not a destination but a foundation. “Then,” he said, “you reach out to help people. On mental illness. On drug addiction. On autism. Now you are tapping into the real problems of real people, regardless of their philosophy. All are made in the image of God and deserve a chance to be what we are meant to be. Our purpose is not to dwell on infirmity, but to recognize infirmity and address it as best we can.” Kasich increased state spending on various social issues, as well as accepting the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
But Kasich is most interesting when he is attempting to reframe the values debate, by avoiding culture war controversies and emphasizing broadly shared moral commitments. “I believe it all comes down to fundamental values: responsibility, resilience, caring about your neighbor.” He cited an “erosion” of those commitments in sports, business and politics. “Why do politicians keep using the division card? Self-interest.”
Ohio’s governor is pleasingly difficult to locate on an ideological map. His twin passions for economic growth and social inclusion are Jack Kemp-like. His references to religion as a source of compassion are reminiscent of George W. Bush. And he adds an authentic blue-collar appeal. “When I went to Youngstown, I could say, ‘I get your values. I grew up next door to you.’”
It is difficult at this point to imagine how this oddly shaped piece fits the puzzle of the Republican primaries. But Kasich speaks with a fatalism that is really faith. “You do your job,” he told me. “If you’re out, you’re out. I think the Lord wants me to be an effective leader and let everyone rise. What is the worst thing that could have happened to me in this election? I could have lost.”
But he didn’t, emphatically.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.