Flickr user Gage Skidmore

John Kasich’s Home-Field Advantage

The Ohio Republican Party is treating Kasich’s presidential bid like a “mini-gubernatorial campaign.”

WEST CHESTER, Ohio—Late last month, the But­ler County Re­pub­lic­an Party un­veiled Rick San­tor­um, the pres­id­en­tial-can­did­ate-turned-Marco-Ru­bio-sur­rog­ate, as the head­line speak­er for its an­nu­al Lin­coln Day din­ner here. Or­gan­izers were ex­pect­ing re­cord at­tend­ance, and not just be­cause the event would take place three days be­fore the Ohio primary. The party was also set to hon­or former House Speak­er John Boehner at his first ma­jor pub­lic ap­pear­ance since his re­tire­ment.

Once he heard the an­nounce­ment, Ohio Re­pub­lic­an Party chair­man Matt Borges called Todd Hall, chair­man of the But­ler County GOP, which hasn’t made an en­dorse­ment in the White House race, to tell him he planned to counter by us­ing some of his al­lot­ted speak­ing time at the event to pro­mote John Kasich. San­tor­um ul­ti­mately backed out at the last minute to cam­paign for Ru­bio in Flor­ida, so Borges tried to fol­low Hall’s re­quest “to go easy a little bit on the pro-Kasich stuff” Sat­urday night. “I’m just go­ing to spend the next 20 minutes telling you why I sup­port John Kasich for pres­id­ent,” Borges joked.

Borges didn’t use a full 20 minutes, and he didn’t need to. Former Sen. Gor­don Humphrey, a staunch Kasich sup­port­er, re­placed San­tor­um at the fun­drais­ing din­ner. At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Mike DeW­ine told the well-heeled audi­ence that it was “no secret” he was back­ing Kasich. And Boehner, break­ing his si­lence on the pres­id­en­tial race, said he already voted for his “close friend” Kasich.

No pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate has quite en­joyed home-field ad­vant­age like Kasich has in 2016. While the Texas and Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an parties re­mained neut­ral even with fa­vor­ite sons Ted Cruz and Ru­bio run­ning, the Ohio GOP has thrown its full weight be­hind the home-state gov­ernor. The party’s state cent­ral com­mit­tee took the un­usu­al step to en­dorse Kasich earli­er this year, and since then, loc­al of­fi­cials and act­iv­ists have made phone calls, knocked on doors, en­cour­aged early vot­ing, and spoke at loc­al func­tions to help elect Kasich.

“It’s like a mini-gubernat­ori­al cam­paign go­ing on over the last month or so, and we’ve been proud to be the ones to spear­head it,” Borges said.

Kasich, who has two statewide vic­tor­ies in Ohio un­der his belt, needs all the help he can get to pull off a third. Pub­lic polls show he is locked in a tight race with Don­ald Trump ahead of Tues­day’s win­ner-take-all primary that could be the last stand not just for the gov­ernor, but also the anti-Trump forces hop­ing to pre­vent the bom­bast­ic celebrity from win­ning the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion.

As Kasich and his rivals fo­cused on oth­er states over the past few months, the Ohio Re­pub­lic­an Party was lay­ing the ground­work for Tues­day’s primary. The party has worked in tan­dem with the cash-strapped Kasich cam­paign and oth­er can­did­ates up and down the bal­lot, in­clud­ing Sen. Rob Port­man, to dis­trib­ute pro-Kasich pamph­lets and yard signs.

They made their biggest push yet this week­end: Borges said he hoped to have close to 1,000 vo­lun­teers across the state knock­ing on doors of Re­pub­lic­an and un­af­fili­ated voters. On top of that, the su­per PAC New Day for Amer­ica has 30 paid staffers across eight of­fices ded­ic­ated to get-out-the vote ef­forts, ac­cord­ing to spokes­wo­man Con­nie Wehrkamp. Mean­while, the oth­er cam­paigns don’t have much of a ground op­er­a­tion to speak of in Ohio.

“All you can do is hope for the best and work and wear out your shoes out here,” said Den­nis Da­mon, a 63-year old Colum­bus Re­pub­lic­an act­iv­ist who knocked on doors for Kasich this week­end.

Kasich had plenty of loc­al party lead­ers to talk up his cre­den­tials at each of the eight stops he made in Ohio over the past three days. But the state GOP also made an ef­fort to place a Kasich sur­rog­ate on the speak­er’s list for each of the roughly 30 Lin­coln Day din­ners around the state lead­ing up to the primary. Aside from a hand­ful of Trump post­cards and bump­er stick­ers, none of the oth­er cam­paigns had a pres­ence at the But­ler County event on Sat­urday.

In ad­di­tion, the Ohio GOP sent a slate card fea­tur­ing names of all of its en­dorsed can­did­ates, with Kasich at the front of the list, to any voter who re­ques­ted a Re­pub­lic­an ab­sent­ee bal­lot. As of Tues­day, 168,000 Re­pub­lic­an ab­sent­ee bal­lots had been re­ques­ted in Ohio, 84,000 of which were cast, ac­cord­ing to the sec­ret­ary of state’s of­fice.

“His people know him. He doesn’t have to ree­du­cate them,” said Dav­id My­hal, a Colum­bus-based GOP lob­by­ist. “He just has to get bod­ies to the polls.”

Kasich, however, didn’t al­ways have a strong re­la­tion­ship with the state party. Kev­in DeW­ine resigned as party chair­man in 2012 after a long-sim­mer­ing feud with the gov­ernor. Kasich had re­cruited a slate of new mem­bers for the state cent­ral com­mit­tee, which elec­ted Borges in 2013. Now, Kasich’s pres­id­en­tial bid has sup­port from nearly every top Re­pub­lic­an elec­ted of­fi­cial and party of­fi­cial. Ohio Treas­urer Josh Man­del, who en­dorsed Ru­bio, is the one not­able ex­cep­tion.

And Kasich’s prom­in­ent back­ers aren’t just speak­ing at fancy din­ners. The state’s aud­it­or, lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, at­tor­ney gen­er­al, and Sen­ate pres­id­ent, to name a few, have all done the tra­di­tion­al vo­lun­teer work of knock­ing on doors and mak­ing phone calls for Kasich. Some even ven­tured to New Hamp­shire and Michigan earli­er in the race to help out.

“There’s no job too small for any mem­ber of our state party or loc­al party,” Cuyahoga County Re­pub­lic­an Party chair­man Rob Frost said.

On Fri­day, Ru­bio sug­ges­ted that voters in Ohio who want to stop Trump should vote for Kasich, un­der­scor­ing that it’s a two-man race for the state’s 66 del­eg­ates. And the real-es­tate mogul has thrived so far even without high-level en­dorse­ments or a for­mid­able ground game. More than any­thing, Kasich is bank­ing on a sense of ho­met­own pride to de­liv­er his first vic­tory of the 2016 race—and keep his un­der­dog cam­paign alive.

“Hav­ing someone from your state run for pres­id­ent,” Rep. Pat Tiberi said at a town hall in Heath, Ohio, “it’s pretty awe­some.”

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)