Early polling shows John Kasich gaining traction in his bid for a second term. Late last month, a survey of registered voters by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, a reliable, independent observer of Ohio politics, showed the Republican governor with his highest job-approval rating ever, 54 percent to 32 percent.
Notably, voters approved, 52 percent to 37 percent, of the way Kasich is handling the economy, closely mirroring, and likely explaining, the positive job-approval rating.
If the election were held now, Kasich would beat the leading Democratic candidate, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, 47 percent to 33 percent.
Kasich remains just below the magic number of 50 percent when it comes to the question of whether voters think he deserves re-election. For a well-known incumbent, dropping below 50 percent on such a poll question signals trouble. In late 2012, only 36 percent favored Kasich’s re-election.
The Quinnipiac poll showed 49 percent now favoring Kasich’s re-election, with 37 percent opposed. He is also faring better among women, who favor FitzGerald 40 percent to 38 percent.
Besides studying, very carefully, the voter-mobilization strategies used by the Obama campaign to win in Ohio last year, FitzGerald has to look beyond those rosy numbers to find his message, one that reaches voters who have doubts about whether Kasich (and the Republicans who dominate the Statehouse) really have their best interests at heart.
Besides telling voters across the state who he is (76 percent don’t know enough to form an opinion about him), FitzGerald, must begin to rebut Kasich’s narrative of success. He must remind voters of the governor riding the national economic recovery, the auto bailout and the boom in oil and gas drilling.
He must note that tax cuts are an ineffective way to stimulate the economy because most of the money goes to those who already have it, and are not likely to spend more, and that budget cuts reduce the state’s ability to lift the middle class, chiefly by reducing educational opportunities.
FitzGerald can also profitably examine who lost out in the budget process, then use Obama-style techniques to organize those left behind by the Republican-crafted fiscal blueprint. In Ohio, Obama organizers carefully gathered data on sympathetic voters, then used it to keep the campaign focused on messages that would keep them interested.
Traditional members of the Democratic coalition, among them women and low-income voters, got clobbered by anti-abortion amendments and the legislature’s unwillingness to take money from Washington to expand Medicaid.
Members of environmental groups, meanwhile, were aggravated by budget language they say too loosely regulates the disposal of drilling waste from hydraulic fracturing, the technique that is tapping oil and natural gas in deep shale formations in the eastern part of Ohio.
FitzGerald must underscore to middle-class voters the continued squeezing of school districts, higher education and funds for local governments, all of which leave them and their families to shoulder an increasing local tax burden with state income tax cuts that will average about $9 for middle-income earners.
Most Republican legislators are in safe districts. To avoid primary challengers, they delivered to the anti-tax, anti-government, anti-abortion wing of the party a winning strategy for incumbents. But in doing so, they may have created an opening for FitzGerald, who is taking on Kasich in a statewide race.
Still, Kasich has been able to craft a centrist image on several fronts, most notably his push to expand Medicaid coverage. While embracing tax cuts, he also proposed increasing the severance tax on oil and natural gas and expanding the state sales tax.
While Kasich won in 2010 with a negative message, bashing incumbent Ted Strickland for job losses, he did so at a time when the national economy had made voters restless. But with the economy improving, FitzGerald can’t take the risk of a campaign that fails to go beyond attacks on the Kasich record.
To take full advantage of the opening created by the budget bill, the FitzGerald camp must outline a positive plan for Ohio, a vision that points up a sharp contrast with Kasich, to be sure, but which also creates a compelling argument that Ohio can be a better, fairer place for its citizens.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.