Kasich draws a closer look from GOP money in Pa.

Highlighting the importance of Pennsylvania, Gov. John Kasich was at Villanova the day after his Ohio triumph.
Highlighting the importance of Pennsylvania, Gov. John Kasich was at Villanova the day after his Ohio triumph. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photograph)
Posted: March 28, 2016

The day after winning his home state, Ohio Gov. John Kasich eyed votes - and money - near Philadelphia.

The Republican presidential contender held a town hall in Villanova, then convened a more intimate meeting at the posh Merion Golf Club, bringing together about 20 major Republican fund-raisers.

Many had chosen other candidates before - Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush among them. But those two were now out, and Kasich asked their supporters to turn to him.

Many have obliged.

A cadre of Pennsylvania Republican players will host a Kasich fund-raiser Thursday at the Union League of Philadelphia. They include former Gov. Tom Ridge - a onetime Bush backer - as well as Bob Asher and Manuel Stamatakis, formerly the Pennsylvania fund-raising chairmen for Rubio and Bush.

Kasich remains a long shot - too long for some, who have decided to sit out the rest of the race after seeing their first choices swamped by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

But others in the local GOP elite are taking a shot with Kasich, seeing him as their last hope to put a mainstream candidate atop their party's ticket.

"For many Republicans," said Farah Jimenez, a host of Thursday's event, "we are holding out hope that there is a third way."

Kasich was born outside Pittsburgh, leads a neighboring state with a similar political profile, and has a tone and style that many see as a fine fit for the Keystone State, where the primary is April 26.

"Pennsylvania and Ohio are very similar," Stamatakis said. "He speaks the language that people in Ohio and Pennsylvania like to listen to."

Where Trump and Cruz have relied on anger and conservative purity, Kasich has talked about compassion, compromise, and refusing to take the "low road" to the White House.

Until now, however, he has made few inroads in Pennsylvania - or most anywhere outside Ohio.

Most Republican insiders here had allied with Bush, Rubio, or Gov. Christie. Rubio was said to have had the strongest campaign infrastructure in Pennsylvania.

Local donors helped Rubio and Christie lead the way in GOP fund-raising in the Philadelphia area, while Kasich lagged in sixth place, through the end of February, the latest data available.

Nationally, some Republicans are calling for him to get out of the race so the party can coalesce around Cruz as a Trump alternative.

"I think John Kasich would be the best nominee, but he doesn't have a chance," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on MSNBC last week.

Kasich's new Pennsylvania backers admit he faces long odds.

He needs around 120 percent of the remaining delegates to cinch the nomination - an impossibility in this dimension.

His sole hope is to win some late-voting states, deny Trump the delegates needed to secure the nomination, and then emerge as a compromise choice at a contested convention.

Kasich's double-bank-shot path presents a challenge in raising money for him, said Andy Lewis, a Haverford Township commissioner who has nonetheless signed on to help.

"It's a harder sell," Lewis said. "But on principle alone it's worth fighting on."

Kasich, though, will face donor fatigue. Many regular contributors have already given to candidates who have flamed out of the race, and they are privately telling friends it is too late for the Ohioan.

Instead, they are turning their focus to other races, such as helping reelect Sen. Pat Toomey and holding contested congressional seats.

"Fund-raising will always be more difficult for a clear underdog than for a front-runner," said one Rubio bundler, Charles Kopp, a Philadelphia lawyer who plans to sit out the rest of the presidential primary.

Some of those taking the time to help Kasich worry that a Trump or Cruz nomination could be catastrophic in a general election, particularly in moderate states like Pennsylvania.

They fear that down-ballot Republicans like Toomey could get crushed in the process, potentially costing the party not only the White House but also its Senate bulwark.

Neither Trump nor Cruz has big-name fund-raising operations locally - the developer is largely self-financed, and the Texas senator's biggest appeal lies in more conservative territory.

For Kasich to stay in the mix, he needs to show that he can win outside Ohio. Pennsylvania may be his best shot left on the map.

"It's very important for him to win Pennsylvania," Stamatakis said. "He needs this win to continue to show credibility and momentum."

As the GOP field thinned, Kasich moved to snap up help, calling donors whose first-choice candidates dropped out. Stamatakis said he got a personal call from the candidate within days of Bush's leaving the race.

Asher had seen Rubio as the best option to expand the party's demographic appeal, but now the Montgomery County chocolatier, a national GOP committeeman, is aiding Kasich.

He said Kasich's experience as a governor and 18-year congressman "make him ready to be president on day one."

Given their remaining choices, many GOP insiders believe Kasich can perform best nationally and in Pennsylvania, where swing voters are key.

Recent polls back up their instincts.

A national survey released Thursday by Monmouth University showed Kasich leading Hillary Clinton 45 percent to 39 percent, and holding a small edge in swing states such as Pennsylvania. Trump and Cruz both trailed Clinton nationally and by small margins in swing states.

Kasich, meanwhile, was surging among Pennsylvania Republicans, according to a Franklin and Marshall poll out Thursday, doubling his support from last month.

The same survey found high negative ratings for Trump and Cruz among the full electorate.

Jimenez, who is on Philadelphia's School Reform Commission and was a Carly Fiorina supporter, worried that either Trump or Cruz could cement the image of Republicans as the party of rejection.

"For someone like me, who is a woman, who is black, who is Latina, who works in social services . . . the last thing you want is for someone to represent your party who suggests all of those things are negative," she said.

Given that the field is now down to three, Jimenez added, Kasich "is, quite frankly, the only option."

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.philly.com/capitolinq

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