Often an afterthought in the chaotic GOP presidential contest, John Kasich is soldiering on with the belief that he can convince hundreds of delegates to swing his way at a contested summer convention by warning that the alternative could be detrimental to the party and the country.
Kasich’s fight to win the GOP nomination remains feasible only if Donald Trump enters the convention in Cleveland without the number of delegates required to secure the nomination outright. Even then, Kasich will need delegates friendly to his cause to set convention rules that allow him to compete. His team has brought on experienced delegate hunters and national strategists in recent weeks to help navigate the complicated math of state-by-state delegate rules to boost his chances at the convention.
It’s a tall task for a candidate who has won just one state and struggled to raise money, but Kasich is striking a defiant tone about his plans to stay in the race.
“People say, ‘Why does he stay in the race?’ What, am I, supposed to get out and leave it to these guys?” Kasich said Wednesday on ABC’s Good Morning America, referencing Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
To lead its delegate hunting efforts, Kasich’s campaign has tapped New Hampshire-based operative Michael Biundo, who ran Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign and previously advised Rand Paul. Biundo has been working to build a 50-state delegate strategy aimed at convincing delegates – many of whom are longtime party leaders or elected officials – that Kasich is the most electable Republican. A slew of recent preference polls back up the argument that he’s far more likely to defeat Clinton than Trump or Cruz.
“Primary voters don’t care that much about electability – but delegates and party leaders do,” said Charlie Black, another veteran GOP operative who recently joined the campaign to help with national strategy.
Still, a number of prominent Republicans more ideologically aligned with Kasich have chosen to endorse Cruz instead, saying that of the two Trump alternatives, Kasich was less likely to meet the convention quota. Kasich’s campaign said Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, urged the Kasich and Cruz campaigns to work together to stop Trump, suggesting they divvy up the states to campaign in. A coordinated effort doesn’t appear to be under way.
Cruz lashed out at the notion that Kasich could pull off a win Thursday, telling a Milwaukee radio station “you’re not electable if you can’t win elections.”
Cruz’s allies are dumping money into an anti-Kasich ad in Wisconsin as he campaigns aggressively ahead of the state’s April 5 primary, targeting specific congressional districts in an effort to pick up delegates. Kasich strategists, meanwhile, are publicly calling on Cruz not to compete in upcoming states like Pennsylvania, where Kasich sees potential for victory in the winner-take-all April 26 primary.
“They all look good,” Kasich spokesman Chris Schrimpf said of upcoming contests in other Eastern states such as New Jersey and Connecticut. “And they look a lot better if Cruz doesn’t try to split the anti-Trump vote.”
Several more victories will be critical to Kasich’s ability to sustain momentum and ensure he can even be nominated in July. An existing convention rule says a candidate must win at least eight states to be nominated at the convention, but the committee could change that rule, potentially lowering the threshold to five or three or eliminating it entirely. Part of the delegate strategy led by Biundo includes ensuring delegates friendly to Kasich help set the rules. States have a slew of complicated rules governing who becomes a delegate, and right now Cruz and Trump are better positioned to have their backers writing the rules.
And with momentum comes financing – something Kasich has struggled with throughout the prolonged primary contest. Through the end of February, his campaign had raised $12 million – barely more than Trump had collected from donors without even trying. Cruz, by comparison, raised $67 million by the end of last month, and Trump is spending tens of millions of his own money and has mastered free publicity.
Tom Ingram, who joined Kasich’s team after Jeb Bush dropped out and has experience running GOP political campaigns, said he hopes to see Kasich bring more fire to the trail as the stakes rise. Kasich has been known in Washington and in Columbus to be unafraid to ruffle feathers, but he focuses much of his time on the trail telling voters to be kind to their neighbors and promising not to negative.
Ingram said Kasich doesn’t need to play to voters’ anger or anxiety, but that showing voters more of his no-nonsense side could help change the narrative of the campaign.
“He was the adult in the room, he was patient and persistent, and that got him where he is,” Ingram said. “He needs to up his game to the next level.”
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Wisconsin and Julie Bykowicz in Washington contributed to this report.