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Thursday, December 8, 2016

WASHINGTON — Republicans won’t win the presidency in 2016 without making inroads in the Midwest. Happily for the GOP, two Midwestern governors are running for their party’s nomination.

Both won re-election in 2014. The one from the state with more electoral votes won with 64 percent of the vote with wide appeal to Democrats and independents. The one from the smaller state got just 52 percent of the vote after a divisive campaign.

The former fought to have his state accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. He made his case on moral grounds, arguing that at heaven’s door, St. Peter is “probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor.”

The latter adamantly opposed expanding Medicaid under the ACA, and his speeches are compendiums of every right-wing bromide party activists demand. “We need a president who — on the first day in office — will call on Congress to pass a full repeal of Obamacare,” this hopeful declared when he announced his candidacy last week. “Next, we need to rein in the federal government’s out-of-control regulations that are like a wet blanket on the economy.” And on he went.

Now: Guess which one is seen as a top contender, and which is dismissed as the darkest of dark horses? Which one was running third behind only Jeb Bush and Donald Trump in the Real Clear Politics poll average as of last Friday, and which one was in 12th place with all of 1.5 percent?

You have no doubt figured out that I’m talking about John Kasich of Ohio, who announces his candidacy on Tuesday, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. It’s telling about the contemporary Republican Party: Kasich would probably be the better bet in the general election but barely registers in the surveys, while Walker has the better chance of winning the nomination.

It’s preposterous to see Kasich as anything but a conservative. He was a drill sergeant for Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the 1990s. When Kasich was chairman of the House Budget Committee, 60 Minutes produced a segment about him titled “The Axman Cometh.” As governor, Kasich pushed big tax cuts that included repealing the estate tax. (The Republican obsession with protecting large fortunes is beyond me.) He also took on the unions with what was known as Senate Bill 5 to end collective bargaining for public employees.

And it’s on the labor question that the Kasich and Walker stories diverge, in large part because of the accident of state election laws. In Ohio, the unions could put Bill 5 directly to the voters, and they repealed it in 2011 by a 61-to-39 percent landslide. A chastened Kasich recalibrated.

Walker is best known for a very similar attack on public employee unions, but Wisconsin had no provision for a comparable referendum. The unions felt they had no choice but to organize a recall of Walker. Voters typically don’t take well to recalls that aren’t a reaction to outright skullduggery and corruption. Walker prevailed, and he’s been bragging about busting unions and surviving ever since. Conservatives love him for it.

Kasich, by contrast, reached out to his previous enemies. When he was endorsed by the Carpenters Union last year, Kasich said: “For too long, there’s been a disconnect between people like me and organized labor.” Walker is as likely to say something like this as he is to sing a rousing chorus of “Solidarity Forever.”

When Kasich talks about his time as governor, as he did to my Washington Post colleague Michael Gerson last year, the things he brags about include his work on autism, mental illness, and drug addiction. He notes — the Almighty again — that all his constituents “are made in the image of God.”

You can tell Kasich knows he will have to run a rebel’s campaign because he has hired rebellious Republican consultants, including John Weaver, John McCain’s campaign strategist who feuded famously with Karl Rove, and Fred Davis, who specializes in off-beat (and sometimes controversial) political commercials.

Kasich’s poll standing might well exclude him from one or more of the early debates. That would be a shame. Perhaps there should be a Midwest debate bracket. A Kasich-Walker confrontation would be especially enlightening.

“I have a little bit of a different message here,” Kasich said at a Republican Governors Association meeting last year. Indeed he does. It’s probably why he can’t win. It’s also why his party needs to listen.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Illustrations: DonkeyHotey