What happened to John Kasich, the 'jerk'?

Posted at 7:56 AM, Feb 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-23 12:01:25-05

CINCINNATI -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich has recently grabbed national headlines for running a positive presidential campaign while other Republican candidates are wrapped up in a storm of negative ads and bickering. 

But just months ago political insiders were wondering if John Kasich’s attitude was too much of a liability for his White House run. 

Jerk. Cranky. Prickly. Google any of those words beside ‘John Kasich’ and you’ll find plenty of news headlines to describe Kasich before he launched his presidential bid last summer. 

Fast-forward to 2016 and those headlines seem almost laughable, especially in an election cycle dominated by Donald Trump. Most have handed off the ‘jerk’ label to the GOP front-runner.

Now, instead, Kasich has crowned himself the ‘prince of light and hope’ in this presidential campaign. And he has supporters who agree that he’s emerged as Mr. Nice Guy in the race.

Just last week, Kasich snatched a few moments of the media spotlight when a University of Georgia student drove to South Carolina to hear Kasich talk at a town hall event. He asked the Ohio governor to give him a hug and Kasich readily embraced the teary-eyed college kid.

Kasich admitted, later that day during a televised town hall event on CNN, that the presidential campaign trail has changed him a bit. 

RELATED: QUIZ: How well do you really know John Kasich?

“It’s definitely changed me because it’s slowing me down,” Kasich said of the 100-plus town halls he’s hosted on the presidential campaign trail. “I’ve learned so much from ... everyone here. “ 

Voters are seeing a softer side of Kasich that Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou says has always been there. 

“John can be a little flippant in his remarks, and people mistake that,” Triantafilou said. “He doesn’t get credit for his softer, kinder, gentler side. … I honestly don’t think it’s as much of a political strategy as it is a look in the man’s soul.” 

Kasich gained a ‘jerky’ reputation with some after he pushed legislation, called Senate Bill 5, that busted up collective bargaining units in the state, said Ohio State University professor Paul Beck. Ohio voters later rejected that mandate in 2011. 

And there was the promise from Kasich in 2010: “If you’re not on the bus, we’ll run you over with the bus.” Then came the time he called the state trooper who wrote him a traffic ticket in 2011 an “idiot.” 

Beck said Kasich quickly learned from his early missteps during the start of his gubernatorial reign. 

“He may have, at that point, begun to take stock and said, ‘I’ve been really controversial and negative,’” Beck said. “He’s really toned that down. I think he really did change.” 

Statehouse Rep. Denise Driehaus, D-Cincinnati, said she’s surprised to see Kasich campaign on such a positive message in the presidential race. 

Driehaus said Kasich’s office was behind a controversial remake – or gutting, as she described – of a bill she introduced last year that allows schools in Ohio to provide health services and after-school activities. Kasich’s amendment to the legislation paved the way for the state to take control of a local school district in Youngstown – a move that’s been assailed by the state’s Democrats.  

“Remember, this is the guy that was going to throw us under the bus,” Driehaus said. “I was one of the people getting run over by the bus. That’s the John Kasich I know.” 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who dropped out of the presidential race Feb. 10, also questioned Kasich’s campaign of positivity. 

“I’ve known Kasich for a long time,” Christie said at a February town hall in New Hampshire. “I can tell you his fellow governors call him lots of things; the prince of sunshine and light is not one of them.” 

But some say Kasich’s “jerk” reputation was only established because some people didn’t agree with his decisions as Ohio’s governor. 

“I don’t think he was a jerk in the first place,” said Chip Gerhardt, a political strategist in Cincinnati. “Being governor of a state like Ohio, it’s a tough job. You have to make hard decisions that often times make lots and lots of people unhappy.”  

Gerhardt traveled to New Hampshire to help with the Kasich campaign. He watched Kasich host seven town halls and said the governor seemed to revel in conversation with the state's people. Those conversations have helped him earn his new status as the Republican Party’s hug-loving Teddy Bear. 

“His interactions with the voters were vastly different from other candidates,” Gerhardt said of his observations of Kasich in New Hampshire. “I’d describe it as a conversation with people. You saw the results of some of those conversations. They’re very personal.” 

Will the positivity translate into votes or better polling numbers? Don’t count it, said Chris Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University. 

Kasich is one of five Republican contenders still standing in the presidential race after Saturday’s South Carolina primary, which claimed Jeb Bush as a victim. Many have coronated Marco Rubio as the Republican alternative to Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. 

“Clearly, Kasich is doing these kind of things, both with the positive campaign and unwillingness to get in the mud, to try to stand out,” Kelley said. “But I still don’t see John Kasich’s path as a competitor.”