LIVONIA — After departing New Hampshire with a much-needed second place finish last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is now banking on an equally strong turnout in Michigan to sustain his path to the presidency.
The two-term Republican governor wrapped up a two-day swing through Michigan on Tuesday, which included stops at two colleges, Michigan State University in East Lansing and Grand Valley State University outside of Grand Rapids, in advance of the state’s March 8 primary. During a Tuesday town hall of a couple hundred people held at a local GOP office in Livonia, Kasich emphasized both his eagerness to promote a conservative agenda — including items like securing the border, increasing defense spending, passing a balanced budget amendment, cutting taxes and regulations — and his willingness to work with Democrats to get things done.
“If you think we’re going to fix social security by the Republicans ramming something through, when you go to bed tonight, check under the pillow for the tooth fairy. It doesn’t work that way,” he said.
“If I win the White House, we’re going to have a conservative agenda, and I’m going to be the orchestra leader, but I want everybody to play in the orchestra, so we can get these things accomplished.”
Kasich is currently polling at an average of 6 percent in Michigan in the most recent poll compiled by RealClearPolitics. That leaves him in fifth place, ahead only of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Trump is currently leading the polls in Michigan at 38 percent.
However, that limited polling was conducted before results from New Hampshire, where Kasich pulled in 15.8 percent of the vote and bested Florida senator Marco Rubio and Texas senator Ted Cruz for the second place spot behind Trump. Kasich is polling at 4.7 percent nationally, according to an average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.
With the Michigan trip, Kasich is mirroring a strategy employed during the earliest portion of the primary season, in which he skipped out on Iowa and its more conservative, Evangelical electorate to hold hundreds of town halls in the Granite State.
“We have to do really, really well in this state, I mean — or I have to roll up the carpets and go back,” he told a crowd Monday in Allendale, home of GVSU.
Aaron Kall, director of the University’s debate team and an expert in election politics, said Kasich will likely count on Michigan, Ohio’s neighbor to the north, to carry him through to his home state’s primary the following week.
“If he can have a surprise second place showing here, that would really give him momentum going into Ohio, the real prize for him,” he said.
According to Kall, Kasich will likely concentrate his efforts in college towns, Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids — places with more traditional, moderate Republicans less influenced by Tea Party leanings. The Ohio governor has emphasized his willingness to stray from the party line — telling the crowd at Michigan State that there is no question that humans contribute to global warming and that people should accept the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage — but also thanked the student-heavy crowd for coming, though he wasn’t “giving away free college” as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–Vt.) has proposed.
LSA freshman John Sack, a member of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, is supporting Rubio, but said he likes Kasich as well.
“Both of them work in reality and don’t just spurt out whatever gets them the most airtime, or the most tweets,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “They don’t talk in ideals, they talk in specifics about what they have done and will do.”
He also noted that Kasich could effectively bring both parties together.
“Kasich has worked across the aisle in Ohio, and I think the attitude of ‘Let’s find the best solution, not just my solution’ brings a much needed attitude into Washington,” he wrote.
In Livonia, Kasich also broke with the party line in emphasizing the challenges inherent in repealing the Affordable Care Act, recalling a woman from Maine who told him she spent her whole life trying to get health insurance until ObamaCare was passed. Kasich was one of several Republican governors, a group that also included Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), to adopt a Medicare expansion in his state through the Affordable Care Act.
On Tuesday, he also fielded a question from the audience related to research funding. He said increasing research dollars for institutions like the National Institutes of Health would be a priority, and can be done even while curbing the country’s spending overall.
During Tuesday’s event, Kasich repeated a family history he often shares at town hall events — telling the crowd that his father was a mailman and his grandfather a coal miner. That’s a narrative that could resonate with blue-collar workers in Rust Belt states like Michigan.
Steven Gould, a real estate developer from Plymouth who attended Tuesday’s town hall in Livonia, said Kasich reminds him of another Midwestern governor: Michigan’s Snyder.
“What I mean by that is they’re common sense Republicans, and they’re administrators,” he said. “What they’re doing right now in both Ohio and in Michigan is they look at our budgets somewhat like a business person does over a politician, and they prioritize their spending. I don’t have a problem with compromise. I have a problem with nothing getting done.”
When it comes to the Flint water crisis, Kasich has avoided criticism of Snyder but has been more vocal about the issue compared to most of the GOP field, citing his own experience dealing with water contamination in Ohio. During a rally in East Lansing, Kasich called for increased investment in infrastructure and tougher federal regulations regarding how the public is notified of drinking water contamination, though he defended Snyder’s response to the crisis.
“What I will say is I think Snyder’s probably working day and night, and probably not even sleeping, trying to get on top of the whole thing and fix it, but it is a challenge. Water is important. Clean water is important.”
Throughout Tuesday’s event, Kasich kept to his pledge to run a positive campaign and declined to bash any of the other contenders in the race — Republican or Democrat — as is custom at most campaign stops.
“There are so many different ways the things that the Lord has given us can be used to heal this world,” he said. “And when we think that way, and we go that way, and we stop screaming at one another because you watch Fox News and you watch MSNBC, I wear red and you wear blue, you know what, we’re all Americans.”