CLEVELAND (AP) – Ohio Gov. John Kasich had a gym full of cheering supporters and confetti as well as 66 brand new Republican presidential delegates after his home-state victory, but he’s got no mathematical path to win the GOP nomination outright.
By winning the do-or-die Ohio primary, Kasich lives to fight on against front-runner Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But his only way to his party’s nomination is by way of a contested Republican National Convention, where he would try to attract the delegate majority that eluded him in the primary season.
Kasich’s hope is a longshot: to win in remaining primary states by peeling away economically worried segments from Trump’s feisty coalition. He’d need to appeal to Republican donors, and fast, while steering clear of the Republican establishment label that hurt several candidates who are now gone.
That’s a circuitous route back to the convention in Cleveland, 20 miles from where he celebrated his only win of the primaries on Tuesday night. He’d have to come to the convention with enough delegates to show he is a force, then put on a full-scale effort to convince the rest he can win in November.
“It’s nuanced, and it’s not simple,” said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, who is part of Kasich’s inner circle. “But it’s our message and our path forward.”
With Marco Rubio out of the race, Kasich and Cruz are Trump’s remaining GOP rivals.
Trump leads in the delegate chase, with 661, but must win 54 percent of remaining delegates to reach the clinching number of 1,237. Cruz, with 406 delegates, is farther along than Kasich, with 142, but the Texan has no realistic path to win a majority during the primaries. It’s impossible for Kasich because there are not enough delegates left.
However, Kasich could return to Cleveland in July with hundreds more delegates, perhaps enough to persuade many of the rest to side with the candidate described by his strategist, John Weaver, as the “only one who can win a general election.”
Weaver also argues the states remaining are more favorable to Kasich than to Trump or Cruz. After a quick stop in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, Kasich is planning to run ads in Utah this week, campaign there Friday, raise money in California and begin hiring staff in every state that’s left.
Kasich has begun trying to make inroads with Trump backers by telling audiences he understands their economic anxieties as the son of working-class parents from a blue-collar Pennsylvania town. He’s betting that voters who are economically anxious – not simply spitting mad – will eventually side with a candidate who understands their experiences and can deliver solutions.
“As I’ve traveled the country and I look into your eyes, you want to believe again that we can have job security, you want to believe again that wages can rise,” he said. “It’s my job to look at these situations and these problems and then listen to you.”
Kasich’s trick will be keeping his 18 years in Congress and two elections as governor in the background.
“We are not going to embrace the establishment phantom,” Weaver said.
Voters have already drummed out of the race candidates associated to varying degrees with the GOP establishment, chiefly Jeb Bush but also Florida Sen. Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
But to mount multiple organized state efforts, Kasich needs instant cash including contributions from donors who supported other candidates.
Kasich had little money available in February for contests outside of Ohio, where he co-opted the state GOP organization to reach voters. He began February with about $1 million in campaign cash. Also, a separate group able to raise unlimited contributions supported him by advertising and helping to organize Ohio voters.
Weaver says the financial picture has improved since February, but Kasich needs as much money as possible for the next round of states, especially the string of Eastern states where the governor might play well. After Wisconsin on April 5, GOP voters decide in New York, Connecticut Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Then the contest comes back to his neighboring Indiana and West Virginia.
Winning over donors leery of being disappointed again will be difficult.
Bill Kunkler, a Chicago investor who backed Bush, said earlier that Kasich was getting his vote in the Illinois contest Tuesday but he was done writing checks for the primary season and did not see a plausible way for Kasich to win a contested convention.
Associated Press writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report from Washington