The party’s establishment are hoping voters on Tuesday will back the economic vision of John Kasich
As an automation engineer, Steve Terhune stands at the forefront of the modern manufacturing economy, advising factories on how to mechanise tasks done by humans in a relentless push for greater productivity.
“Robots?” he said. “I can do robots.”
But, standing in a cowboy hat with an American flag on it outside a weekend rally for Donald Trump, Mr Terhune had a very human reason for how he is going to vote in Tuesday’s Ohio primary.
The US needs strong leadership and that means it is time for the property tycoon turned Republican presidential frontrunner to move into the White House, Mr Terhune says.
John Kasich, the Ohio governor making what could amount to a last stand in his home state, is a “nice guy” who has “been good for Ohio”. “But that’s not what the nation needs,” Mr Terhune offered.
That is a view that the Republican establishment is hoping few Ohioans will share on Tuesday.
Mr Trump suffered losses in weekend primaries in Wyoming and Washington, DC, and besides Ohio, voting is also taking place on Tuesday in Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina, with 367 delegates of the 1,237 needed to secure the Republican nomination up for grabs.
But for an angst-ridden Republican leadership, the focus has increasingly turned to Ohio and its winner-takes-all primary as the best hope to stop the property tycoon and his increasingly divisive candidacy for president.
While polls show Mr Trump with a healthy lead over Senator Marco Rubio in Florida, surveys point to a much tighter race in Ohio for its 66 delegates. And in a sign of how tight the race in the state has become, Mr Trump on Sunday abruptly cancelled a Florida rally due to take place on Monday to return to Ohio for another day of campaigning after a new poll showed Mr Kasich leading.
Mr Kasich was re-elected in a landslide in 2014 and has one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the US. Still, he has staked his candidacy on a win in Ohio leaving him as the lone establishment candidate alongside Mr Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Mr Trump’s top rival so far.
“Ohio is critical,” Mr Kasich told reporters during a recent campaign stop. “When I win here on Tuesday, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Republican officials in the state have already begun to fret about the November general election and what they fear would be the negative impact on an important swing state on Mr Trump being the party’s nominee.
“I don’t think Donald Trump can win Ohio in a general election with this divisive message. It hasn’t even won him a majority of Republicans,” Matt Borges, the Ohio Republican party’s state chairman, told the Financial Times in an interview.
If Mr Trump was the Republican standard bearer in November he would drive away centrists, Mr Borges says. He would also reverse years of work by Republicans to reach out to minority populations.
“Donald Trump embodies everything that we keep saying we are not,” he adds.
At the policy level, much of the campaign in Ohio has hinged on economics and trade. The rust belt state’s car and manufacturing industry was hit hard by the 2008 crisis and has recovered only slowly, leaving many voters still feeling vulnerable and angry about companies who use trade agreements to ship jobs overseas.
We are going to do so much winning you are going to get tired of winning
– Donald Trump
“Look at all the jobs we’ve lost,” says Kyle Kelch, a 62-year-old car salesman who wore a colonial-era hat with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in it to Mr Trump’s rally in Dayton on Saturday. “Why are we doing this?”
Mr Trump has advocated mounting a trade war against China if necessary to recoup jobs and economic advantage. He also stepped up attacks against Mr Kasich at the weekend for supporting the 1990s North American Free Trade Agreement and a Pacific Rim trade pact that the Obama administration has negotiated with Japan and 10 other countries, for which he needs congressional approval.
His plan is to rip up what he called “disastrous” existing trade deals and negotiate new ones that would better serve America’s interests by deploying the country’s top businessmen as negotiators, calling them his “killers”.
“We are going to do so much winning you are going to get tired of winning,” he told supporters on Saturday.
Mr Kasich’s economic vision is a far more orthodox one. He has made Ohio’s economic turnround — which he attributes to a relentless attack on regulations and taxes and luring foreign investors — the centrepiece of his campaign. He is unapologetically pro-trade and has embraced foreign investors, opening a weekend tour of the state in a Chinese-owned auto glass factory that he helped bring to Ohio.
The contrast means that in an election year in which economic populism and the political revenge of those left behind by technology and globalisation has been the big story, the hopes of the establishment are resting on Ohio and one man’s ability to sell a story that goes against the grain.
White House Countdown: Sign up for our daily US election email.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. You may share using our article tools.
Please don’t cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.