Tough road ahead for John Kasich in the South

Strategy will be to survive run of southern primaries.

Even as he celebrated his second-place finish in New Hampshire last Tuesday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich was looking ahead.

Way ahead.

The southern gauntlet of primaries beginning with South Carolina on Feb. 20 and Super Tuesday on March 1 — dubbed the “SEC Primary” because of the number of southern states involved — is not tailor made for a candidate who expanded Medicaid and is seen as the most moderate Republican remaining in the presidential field.

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But Kasich’s goal is more to survive the South than to win the South.

“We’re going to compete here,” Kasich told CNN from South Carolina last week. “We don’t expect to win here.”

Even to stay within striking distance of the leaders before the race shifts to the Midwest will be a formidable challenge.

The March 1 Super Tuesday primaries will divvy up 595 of the 2,470 GOP delegates. To survive, say experts, Kasich will have to perform well in at least some of the 11 states voting that day.

That means Kasich, who embraced the town hall format and retail politicking that New Hampshire afforded him, will have to make bigger, airplane tarmac type of appearances. And it means he’ll have to go on TV, which will require raising wads of money quickly.

“For him, survivability is about acquiring enough resources to move forward,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.

‘I don’t know where he goes’

Kasich’s team is working on that: They had the best fundraising night of the campaign after the New Hampshire primary. And the team says they are confident they have a strong structure in many of the upcoming states.

In a press call with reporters Thursday, John Weaver, a senior strategist to Kasich’s campaign, wouldn’t comment on how much the campaign had raised since the New Hampshire primary, but the Washington Post quoted him as saying that the campaign raised $500,000 online between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

“We are running a national campaign,” Weaver said, adding that Ken Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot who had supported New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is now supporting Kasich.

But Weaver downplayed how much the campaign would have to raise, noting that Kasich was outspent in New Hampshire but still came in second.

“It’s not just how much you raise,” he said. “It’s what you do with it.”

The March 1 Super Tuesday primaries includes some treacherous territory for Kasich. Among the states voting that day are Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Arkansas, Alaska, Virginia and Alabama.

Three other states — Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming — hold non-binding caucuses that day.

The southern states could be particularly concerning to Kasich, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Georgia. There are a lot of delegates at stake — Georgia alone has 76, more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined.

“I don’t think he’ll do anything in South Carolina, and that’s really the gateway to the southern states,” Black said. “I don’t know where he goes.”

‘We will make up ground very quickly’

Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who has not endorsed in the race but who served in the House with Kasich, said the ground game Kasich unleashed in New Hampshire won’t be possible in the southern states.

“The advantage (Kasich) had in New Hampshire is he had the time to spend with folks one on one and in small groups,” Chambliss said. “He’s not going to have that opportunity throughout the SEC states.”

He predicts that Donald Trump will do well in the March 1 states, but so will former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.

“You’ve got Jeb, you’ve got Marco, you’ve got Cruz,” he said. “Folks in the south tend to want folks to be one of their own and that makes John go upstream to a certain extent.”

But Kasich is clearly on the radar. Just a day after New Hampshire, Bush aimed his verbal fire at Kasich over his expansion of Medicaid and said he was weak on defense during his years in Congress.

Kasich stuck back and suggested that Bush was tarnishing his family’s legacy.

“I don’t know what he’s thinking,” Kasich said.

The attacks by Bush seem to be aimed at reinforcing the notion that Kasich isn’t conservative enough to appeal to southern voters, many of whom identify themselves as evangelical.

Former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a key Kasich supporter in New Hampshire, said the Ohio governor will fare better when the campaign shifts to “Act 2,” states with voters more receptive to the Kasich message.

A change in how delegates are counted also could benefit a trailing candidate.

Prior to March 15, delegates are divided proportionally, meaning you don’t have to finish first to gain delegates. But after March 15, when Ohio votes, many of the states are winner-take-all.

“We will be behind in delegate count on March 15,” Rath said, “But after that, we will be ahead in delegate count. We will make up ground very quickly.”

‘Wide open’ race

While Kasich acknowledges he won’t win South Carolina, he refuses to paint all southern states with the same brush. He feels good about Alabama, where he has the endorsement of Gov. Robert Bentley, and he likes his chances in Mississippi, where he has the support of former Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott.

“I’m going to do great in the south,” he assured CNN.

Kasich may also do well in some of the northern, more moderate states running on Super Tuesday, such as Vermont and Massachusetts, where Kasich has already been endorsed by the Boston Globe.

And he could exceed expectations in Virginia, which has more moderate population centers in the Tidewater area and in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Kasich will be there Feb. 17.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, who is chairing Kasich’s Virginia efforts, said a number of public officials in those areas have endorsed Kasich and “there are more to come.” He’s hoping those regions have higher turnout than the more conservative swath in the western end of the state.

“I think it’s wide open at this point,” Davis said. “I think we can finish in the top three. We just need a strong urban showing.”

The case for going forward

Kasich’s key job during the next few primaries is to manage expectations, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “You don’t go out there and say you’re fighting to win these places when you’re not going to win them,” she said.

Rath said the ultimate decider will be the voters, and he cautioned against reading too much into what he called the media’s “rush to judgment” after each election contest. While Trump won New Hampshire easily, 65 percent of the GOP primary voters supported someone other than him, he said.

Although he is hardly the front-runner, Kasich has already done what nationally known candidates like Christie, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum couldn’t do: survive past New Hampshire. But nothing from this point on will be easy.

“Moral victories are acceptable at this point in the race,” said C. Danielle Vinson, a professor at Furman University in South Carolina. “If you keep it close with Rubio and Bush, then you don’t have to get out of the race. But if you’re losing to them by a fairly substantial margin, your case for going forward starts to fall apart.”

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