The party goes to bat for Kasich in Ohio

Kasich: 'We Are Going to Win the State of Ohio, and It Will Be a Whole New Ballgame'

Since making his debut in Ohio politics 38 years ago as a 26-year-old with a bowl haircut and a penchant for lecturing party elders, John Kasich has been elected nine times as a congressman and twice as governor. He won 86 of 88 counties when he was re-elected in 2014. Kasich's counting on his home state to stick with him and keep his long-shot bid for the White House alive in its March 15 primary.

He has a unique advantage: the active support of Ohio's state GOP. The party, run by close allies, helped him pay for trips to New Hampshire and South Carolina in the months before he announced his campaign. In January the party threw its support behind Kasich, breaking 64 years of neutrality in the presidential nominating process. (The last endorsement went to Robert Taft, in 1952.) Only one other candidate this year had the backing of a state party—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose home state GOP got behind his candidacy.

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John Kasich on the campaign trail
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The party goes to bat for Kasich in Ohio
MILFORD, NH - SEPTEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate John Kasich greets supporters at the Labor Day parade on September 7, 2015 in Milford, New Hampshire. Kasich, buoyed by what observers called a strong performance in the first GOP debate, has emerged as a first tier presidential candidate with voters in New Hampshire, the nation's first primary state. (Photo by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images)

Having the party's backing gives Kasich a host of advantages. His surrogates are descending on official functions for the GOP faithful in a party-coordinated effort, "reaching literally thousands of surefire Republican primary voters," says Matt Borges, the state GOP chairman. The events included 14 Lincoln Day dinners held around the state in early March, the signature local Republican party event of the primary season. "We had a Kasich surrogate at every single one of them," says Borges. No other campaign showed.

The party is also deploying its voter turnout machine on Kasich's behalf, driving a surge in absentee and early ballots, which typically account for a third of the vote. As of March 4, more than 84,000 had been received, according to Ohio's secretary of state. "At the end of the day, we have the apparatus to turn out the vote," says Borges. "It's already been working for weeks, even months, to deliver this victory for John Kasich."

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Over the years, the Ohio GOP has polished absentee turnout to an art, including chasing snowbirds at their winter addresses and people who've moved out of state but haven't yet updated their voter registration. The party sent mailers to about 150,000 absentee voters, each of whom will also receive follow-up calls from Kasich's super-PAC, a coordinated effort no other candidate can duplicate, says Borges. The party is sending a million more cards to Republican voters expected to vote on primary day. Republican candidates for local office are carrying Kasich campaign literature as they canvass, as will more than 1,000 volunteers coordinated by the state party.

Kasich has said he'll drop out if he doesn't win Ohio, which awards its 66 delegates on a winner-take-all basis. So far he hasn't won a single primary, but he's accumulated 54 delegates in states that distribute them proportionally. His best performance has been in Vermont, where he won 30 percent of the vote and came in second.

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On March 6, Kasich held a state kickoff rally in Columbus, where he was introduced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former California governor told the crowd that Kasich was "an action hero when he went to Washington." Kasich's super-PAC, New Day for America, has eight offices in the state and has spent about $458,000 on television ads that began airing the first week of March.

As of March 8, Donald Trump was the only other candidate airing ads in Ohio besides Kasich, says Bob Clegg, a Republican media buyer in Columbus. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz appear to be focusing on Florida, which votes the same day as Ohio. Nevertheless, some Republicans say it's not a surprise that Kasich is behind Trump in polls, despite the governor's home-field advantage. "He hasn't really run a presidential campaign in Ohio yet," says Curt Steiner, a Republican consultant from Columbus. "It sounds crazy, but he hasn't done that."

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