Gov. John Kasich is in open conflict with Donald Trump and national party leaders, but rank-and-file Ohio Republicans have forged their own tenuous truce with their nominee.
The accord has transformed Ohio into one of Trump's best bets to recapture a state that voted twice for Barack Obama.
Resistance to Hillary Clinton is helping fuel Trump’s recent uptick in state polls, Ohio GOP operatives say. While Kasich, a Republican who refuses to back either presidential nominee, is popular in his home state, local GOP leaders and activists are increasingly willing to break from his lead, indicating their preference for Trump in the hopes of preventing Clinton from winning.
A CNN/ORC poll last week found that 85 percent of Republicans in Ohio were backing Trump — up from 77 percent in an early July Quinnipiac poll — and virtually the same as the 83 percent of Democrats who said they were backing Hillary Clinton.
“I was a really strong Kasich supporter [during the GOP presidential primary]. I was a volunteer, I deployed at my own expense to Michigan and volunteered for him, and Trump really wasn’t my first choice,” said Traci Saliba, a GOP activist based in Delaware County, a strongly Republican suburb of Columbus where Trump needs to generate big turnout. “The closer we get to Election Day, the more people are taking a look and saying, ‘You know what, he wasn’t my first choice, Donald Trump, but we can’t have another Clinton in the White House.’"
In Ohio’s March 15 primary, Kasich carried the state over Trump and cleaned up in the GOP vote-rich areas surrounding Ohio’s major cities — places where Republicans must perform well on Election Day to overcome Democratic margins in the big cities. Strategists and activists in the state say many of those center-right voters are now coming on board for Trump in increasing numbers — even if reluctantly — despite Kasich’s ongoing feud with the nominee.
“The big question was, what’s it going to be like in suburban counties around Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus?” said Bob Clegg, a veteran Republican operative in Ohio. “What we’ve been seeing over the last several weeks is some coalescing in those suburban counties.”
Even Sen. Rob Portman of Cincinnati, who is outperforming Trump in the state and with women, has discovered how to coexist with Trump, rather than work at cross-purposes. He is running a carefully calibrated re-election campaign, that neither embraces nor bashes Trump in the way that some of his Senate colleagues, as well as Kasich, have done.
"The fact is, Portman and Trump are doing well together. Portman is strong in areas that Trump is not strong in. They've turned out to be a pretty good team," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally who served in the House with Kasich.
Three recent public polls have shown Trump pulling ahead of Clinton in Ohio just as she’s faced some of the harshest headwinds of her campaign. Trump has capitalized on her recent stumbles while acting “a little more tamed in his campaigning,” Clegg said, fueled to a degree by his appeal to blue-collar voters without a college degree.
But the latest flare-up between Kasich and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus — a top Trump ally — complicates the uneasy grassroots detente. After Priebus warned Sunday that Kasich’s refusal to back Trump could have political consequences in the event he runs again, John Weaver, Kasich’s chief political adviser, ripped the party chair in a statement on official campaign letterhead.
“The idea of a greater purpose beyond oneself may be alien to political party bosses like Reince Priebus, but it is at the center of everything Governor Kasich does,” Weaver said, deriding the RNC head as a “Kenosha political operative” in the process.
While the drama raised the specter of fracturing the party anew just as Trump had begun to show momentum, it also further fueled Democratic hopes that they will be able to make inroads with moderates, especially suburban women, who have been open to Kasich but can’t abide Trump. The Clinton campaign sees Trump as weaker with women and college-educated voters than Mitt Romney was, and they have been targeting both constituencies in Ohio.
State GOP chairman Matt Borges, who defended Kasich, said he didnt think the latest dispute would blunt Trump's recent progress in the state.
"John Kasich not only has the right to say whatever he wants, he has the responsibility to lead the state the way he sees fit. He has never once asked us to not be supportive of the entire ticket," Borges said.
Borges said he's urged Trump since the national GOP convention in July to avoid an open war with his state’s governor. Trump himself, he said, has honored that commitment.
"I've spoken to Donald Trump about this in person, and I saw him on Saturday and we spoke again about it," he said. "It makes no sense to pick a fight with the most popular elected official."
Indeed, tensions have cooled since July, when Kasich refused to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland — instead holding side events to promote his alternative, more inclusive brand of Republicanism — and Trump's then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort returned the favor by calling him an "embarrassment."
Back then, Warren County GOP Chair Jeff Monroe told POLITICO that there was a significant local “Never Trump” movement, and he questioned whether Trump would generate the high turnout Republicans typically notch in his Cincinnati-area county. Now, he is much more confident that Trump’s performance will be in line with other Republicans.
“There’s a lot that has changed,” Monroe said Monday. “After the convention, we coalesced, we saw the party locally coalesce around Trump…are there still ‘Never Trumpers’ out there? I’m confident of that, but I don’t know what that does for the vote in my county. My gut is, very little. My gut is, he’ll do reasonably well, or as well as would be expected, in Warren County.”
As for the ongoing tensions between the Kasich and Trump camps, he shrugged off the conflict.
“At least in Warren County, Warren recognizes there’s a broad spectrum of folks that are Republican,” he said. “I don’t know that the governor either endorsing or not endorsing is a huge matter for the voters in Warren County.”
Doug Preisse, a key Kasich backer and the chair of the Franklin County GOP executive committee, in Columbus, agreed that it wouldn’t be the determinative factor in Trump’s Ohio fate.
“Popularity is not transferable,” he said. “People are getting all hung up, wringing their hands about who’s endorsed, who hasn’t endorsed, but…that kind of consternation is a sideshow. Back to basics: Is the Trump campaign putting together what it needs, what it takes to win Ohio, or not?”
He went on to add that it was to be expected that most rank-and-file Republicans would eventually get on board.
“It is typical that partisans will ‘come home,’ to a degree, later and later in the election cycle,” he said. “I think both the polling and the anecdotal evidence I’m picking up demonstrate that [Ohio GOP support for Trump] will be — 85 percent, 90 percent, 95 percent, I don’t know.”
Saliba, the GOP activist, said she was livid over the Priebus criticism of Kasich, but casting a vote against Clinton vote took precedence.
“Reince Priebus, I’m not sure if he could be more irrelevant to me in what we’re trying to do in Ohio,” she said. But, “Hillary is not an option for us, not an option for those of us loyal to our party.”