CLEVELAND – Hundreds cramped inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while a band performed and servers passed cake pops adorned with red, white and blue sprinkles.
Giant flags with campaign logos fell from the ceiling, next to the Jumbotron playing videos and pictures of smiling volunteers working on the campaign trail.
It was just the kind of party any Republican candidate would throw after a major victory.
But Ohio Gov. John Kasich didn’t have much to celebrate Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the Republican Party would formally move to nominate Donald Trump for the presidency a few blocks away at Quicken Loans Arena.
Instead, he threw a party to celebrate the hundreds of Ohio staff and volunteers for their work on his failed presidential campaign.
“I asked for this to be done so I could have an opportunity to thank you all for your work,” Kasich told the crowd. “I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done.”
The posh affair served as a reminder to hundreds of Ohio Republicans of what might have been; Kasich probably would have thrown the same type of bash in Cleveland if he had successfully landed the nomination.
His most ardent supporters said the May day that Kasich decided to drop out of the presidential race, holding a press conference in Columbus, felt like a funeral.
Tuesday felt more like a wake for his nearly yearlong White House bid.
“He was in good spirits, being with friends,” said Chip Gerhardt, a Cincinnati Republican who supported Kasich’s efforts to become the next president.
Still, as the Republican National Convention plays out this week in Kasich’s home state, it’s revealed the Ohio governor, a longtime establishment Republican, is deeply troubled over the direction of his party and its nominee.
“He can’t believe what’s happened to his party,” said Chris Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University. “He’s really trying to go out, fighting for the party that may or may not exist anymore.”
Kasich has steered clear of any convention events this week – an unprecedented move for a Republican governor who’s playing host to the major party event.
Even as some of his biggest backers – Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges and Sen. Rob Portman, to name a few – made their way into the convention, Kasich has refused to step foot in the arena.
Instead he’s stuck to speaking at delegate breakfasts, headlining events for New Hampshire, Illinois and Michigan as well as stopping by private parties.
And he hasn’t been quiet at those events about hinting at his distaste for the party’s nominee.
“It’s going to be the great challenge between Republicans and Democrats,” Kasich told delegates over breakfast at an Akron hotel Tuesday. “The party that can annunciate the hopes and the dreams and the unity is the party that’s going to do well.”
Kasich’s schedule and his plan to campaign for vulnerable Republican government seats around the country, have stirred rumors about plans for him to run for the presidency again in 2020. He said Tuesday he’ll stump for several Republicans, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), and he’s already committed to working the campaign trail for Portman to keep his seat.
Those efforts show he’s building up his network within the party and possibly considering what move he should make next. Kasich is a term-limited governor who will leave the seat in 2019. The work he does on fellow Republicans’ campaigns will help him in the future, said Dan Birdsong, a University of Dayton political science professor.
“It’s kind of like the Godfather request,” Birdsong said. “It’s a way of earning favors: I come out, I help you get re-elected … I’m going to come to you, some day, and that day may never come.“
But Birdsong said Kasich is probably weighing a number of options, not just a presidential run. He might see a Senate seat or a Republican think-tank as a more effective way to influence the party from the ground up.
Kasich seemed to almost broach the subject himself Tuesday as he spoke to delegates about the food, people and places he had “fallen in love” with while on the campaign trail in Michigan.
“I just want you all to understand something … folks, I don’t want anything,” Kasich told the group. “I’ve had an unbelievable career. When I finish my next couple years (as governor) I’ll have held public office for 30 years.”