St. John Kasich’s Obamacare Problem

New polling suggests he’s playing with hellfire.

After announcing his support for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion in 2013, Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich famously told reporters that his faith – and his concerns about meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates – compelled him to massively expand the welfare rolls to include able-bodied adults, a policy traditionally disfavored by voters.

Kasich’s spiritual mandate – received over the strenuous objections of his Republican-controlled legislature – has transformed the midwestern governor from Gingrich-era budget balancer and former campaigner against Medicaid expansion into a latter-day apostle of “compassionate conservatism” who at times seems almost an Obamacare missionary.

Now Kasich seeks a higher office. And with recent polls showing him surging in critical New Hampshire, one wonders whether the Almighty is smiling on “St. John” after all. Pundits are becoming excited by the notion that Kasich’s rise signals a political turning point – that “Obamacare repeal fatigue” has spread even unto the furthest-right precincts of the GOP.

It’s been widely noted that Kasich has recently jumped up in Fox New’s presidential poll in New Hampshire, coming in second only to colorful front-runner Donald Trump. Less reported is that the Ohio governor has flooded the Granite State with nearly $4 million in TV ads to raise his name ID. That datum is inconvenient to those whose desired narrative is that his recent success is due to his bold embrace of (part of) Obamacare.

Kasich isn’t the only GOP governor to expand Medicaid, but he definitely occupies pride of place in progressive hearts, likely because of the religious sanctimony he wears like a halo when defending his actions, and perhaps also because he is from Ohio, a key swing state that, historically, no Republican has ever won the White House without. He thus appears as a sort of progressive prophet, standing athwart the entire GOP, shouting: “Go left!”

But is Kasich’s surge really due to his Obamacare stance? Based on the results of a new poll released today by FGA Action, a national research organization focused on state-level welfare reform debates, the answer is no. Indeed, the new numbers suggest Kasich’s health care actions probably do him more harm than good. (Full disclosure: I serve on this group’s board of directors. But I played no role whatever in this poll.)

The organization commissioned surveys of 2,182 likely Republican primary voters in four early primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Three findings stand out: 1. Obamacare remains unpopular with GOP primary voters. 2. Voters are unforgiving of presidential hopefuls who expand Obamacare in their own states. 3. They really dislike candidates who lobby for expansion in other states. (Governor Kasich, call your office.)

In these four critical primary states, between 77 and 85 percent of Republican voters oppose Obamacare; between 74 and 82 percent oppose Medicaid expansion; and between 56 and 64 percent say they’re less likely to pull the lever for candidates who expanded Obamacare in their own states. (A mere 4 to 8 percent say they’re more likely to support candidates that expand Medicaid.)

But here’s the truly bad news for Team Kasich: Between 67 percent and 74 percent of GOP primary voters in the polled states say they’re less likely to support candidates who lobby for Obamacare expansion in other states. Just 3 to 9 percent of GOP primary voters say that such lobbying makes them more likely to vote for a candidate.

Could it be that the Kasich bump comes despite his Obamacare stance, not because of it? Tellingly, none of his New Hampshire ads breathes even a whisper about health care. Instead, they focus on his balanced-budget record, his familiarity with national defense, and of course the usual political tropes. (“My dad carried mail on his back.”) Nary a word about Obamacare, the reddest of red meat for likely primary voters.

Of the 17 Republican presidential candidates, only two have embraced Obamacare expansion: Kasich and his fellow governor, Chris Christie of New Jersey. The latter has shown the political sense to downplay his state’s expansion, leaving the Ohioan as the only candidate in the race actually trying to make a virtue of being soft on the law Republicans hate more than any other.

After his aforementioned conversion two years ago, Kasich went so far as to mount a multi-state tour, spreading the good news of welfare expansion inMontana, North Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee. Some say that his urging of Montana Republicans to embrace Obamacare played a significant role in that state’s decision to expand Medicaid.

Such actions may earn Kasich fist bumps from President Barack Obama and the “strange new respect” award from the progressive pundit class, but can they really help his presidential prospects? Republican voters, like most Americans, can see beyond the theory of Obamacare to its ugly reality: for example, to its controversial mandates, skinny doctor networks and impending double-digit premium hikes. Why would they believe St. Peter demands they support all that along with welfare for able-bodied adults?

While Kasich’s transfiguration from congressional budget-balancer to chief Obamacare lobbyist may win him disciples among MSNBC hosts, it’s hard to see how it helps him with voters. Indeed, the new poll numbers suggest he may be playing with (political) hellfire.

Dean F. Clancy, a former senior official in the White House and Congress, writes on U.S. budget and constitutional issues. Follow him at deanclancy.com or on twitter @deanclancy.


[Originally published at USNews.com, September 11, 2015. @USNewsOpinion. Reposted at DeanClancy.com.]

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