And for John Kasich’s Next Act in Politics …

by Stuart Rothenberg September 13, 2013 · 9:00 AM EDT

We will know in a little more than a year whether John R. Kasich has a second act, or even a third one, in politics. But don’t be surprised if he does.

The Republican governor of Ohio looked like a political defeat waiting to happen in November 2011, after a state ballot measure that he pushed limiting union rights went down to a crushing 62 percent to 38 percent defeat.

But Kasich’s poll numbers have been rising ever since, and Buckeye State insiders believe that the former boy wonder of the Ohio GOP has bigger plans for himself if he wins a second term next year. They believe that the governor — and former nine-term House member — will mount another presidential run.

Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based Democratic polling firm, reported that Kasich was “the most unpopular governor” polled by the firm in August 2011. His approval rating was a weak 36 percent then, with a disapproval of 53 percent.

But a year later, the firm found Kasich’s approval up to 41 percent, the same as his disapproval rate. Other surveys conducted in the fall of 2012 found the governor in even better shape. A September 2012 Washington Post poll found Kasich’s job approval at 52 percent (56 percent among independents), and a CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac survey had his approval at 47 percent and his disapproval at only 38 percent.

Recent PPP and Quinnipiac polls continue to tell different stories about Kasich’s standing with voters and prospects for re-election. The Democratic firm found the governor’s job approval at 42 percent in mid-August, while Quinnipiac’s mid-June survey found his job approval at a strong 54 percent.

Quinnipiac showed Kasich leading his likely 2014 Democratic opponent, Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Executive Ed FitzGerald, by 14 points, 47 percent to 33 percent. PPP found FitzGerald ahead 38 percent to 35 percent, an oddly (and difficult to believe) high percentage of undecided voters for such a high-profile sitting governor.

Kasich seems to have benefited from the state’s economic rebound, which President Barack Obama talked about often during his campaigning for a second term. That means FitzGerald and Buckeye State Democrats are in the position of having to emphasize the negative as they complain about Kasich’s handling of the state’s economy.

Most observers believe the governor is now better than even money to win a second term. (Rothenberg Political Report rates this race as Tossup/Tilt Republican.) And many of them believe that if he does that, he will make another run for president.

Of course, Kasich, whose 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination never got off the ground, is not publicly encouraging such talk.

As veteran political columnist Joe Hallett of The Columbus Dispatch noted in a late June column, it would be “bad form” for Kasich to acknowledge his interest in a national race even before Buckeye State voters had awarded him a second term.

This year’s version of Kasich is different from the one who ran for his party’s nomination more than a dozen years ago, or even from the one who backed that unsuccessful ballot measure less than two years ago.

As Wall Street Journal reporter Neil King Jr. pointed out in a noteworthy Aug. 14 piece, “An Ohio Prescription for GOP: Lower Taxes, More Aid for Poor,” Kasich has broadened the definition of what a conservative is, reaching back to echo former Rep. Jack Kemp’s concern with traditionally un-Republican constituencies.

Kasich, noted King, has pushed to expand Medicaid in Ohio and he has patched things up a bit with organized labor in the state, angering more than a few conservatives, including some in the legislature.

But it’s also true that this summer, the governor signed a bill that included provisions that supporters of legal abortion view as extremely restrictive.

If he runs for president, Kasich surely will assert that he cut taxes in Ohio at the same time that he eliminated the huge budget shortfall that he inherited. And he’ll tie his success in the Buckeye State to his federal record by saying that he balanced the budget when he was on Capitol Hill as well.

The governor is also likely to point to Ohio’s importance in any presidential contest (though the state’s Electoral College vote has fallen from 25 in 1980 to only 18 last year), arguing that his electoral success in the state would be an asset in a presidential election.

Insiders believe Kasich’s biggest change from his brief 2000 presidential run to a potential run in 2014 is money.

“He spends more time in the Cleveland media market than any place other than Columbus,” one longtime Ohio watcher said. “There are still plenty of votes and plenty of money up there. He has done a good job locking that money up. He finally has some serious people behind him financially.”

But Kasich would have to answer a handful of questions before being included as a top-tier contender. He will have to prove that his recent swerve to the left on some issues has not cost him future conservative support, and show that he can put together a team that can make him a formidable contender. And, most importantly, the governor has always been dogged by questions about his discipline as a candidate.

Almost 15 years ago, I wrote that Kasich hoped to run an “unconventional” campaign for the White House that would deliver a message of “anti-establishment populism” and attract everyone from Christian conservatives to younger voters and women. A lot has changed since then — including his party, the country and himself — but it isn’t clear that he can be any more successful in 2016 than he was in 2000.