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Nancy Smith

What Could Rick Scott Learn from John Kasich?

September 13, 2013 - 6:00pm

Remove the name and read the story of Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio over the last two years. You would swear you were reading about Gov. Rick Scott.

The underdog similarities are remarkable.

Stuart Rothenberg, in Friday's Rothenberg Political Report, says Kasich, "looked like a political defeat waiting to happen in November 2011," after an Ohio ballot measure he pushed limiting union rights went down to a crushing 62 percent to 38 percent defeat.

Florida's Rick Scott, meanwhile, looked like a political defeat, etc. himself at about the same time. In November 2011 he was already reaping grim predictions that his budget cuts to education and the stone wall he had built between himself and teachers were insurmountable. Combined with his low favorability ratings, he was considered by many a dead man walking in Tallahassee.

But, believe it or not, in August 2011 Rick Scott wasn't at the bottom of the favorability barrel nationally. John Kasich had that distinction. Left-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP) called Kasich "the most unpopular governor" in America, saying his approval rating was a weak 36 percent then, with a disapproval of 53 percent.

The following year Scott's budget cuts had left him room to revisit teacher pay. And he restored money to environmental areas where possible. That helped, certainly, but it didn't exactly float the ticker-tape on his favorability ratings out a window.

Then in February 2013, another popularity setback. Scott jarred his tea-party faithful -- the folks who brung him -- when he announced his support for
expanding Medicaid and funneling billions of federal dollars to Florida. It was a significant policy reversal. He said expansion could bring health care coverage to 1 million additional Floridians and to do otherwise than support it would be unconscionable.

Well, Kasich -- as Scott did -- focused forward, hanging his hat on economic issues. Ohio has enjoyed an economic rebound, something Obama talked a lot about last year on the campaign trail in the Buckeye State. As Rothenberg says, in the coming gubernatorial campaign, "Democrats are in the position of having to emphasize the negative as they complain about Kasich's handling of the state's economy."

The same will be true in Florida, as Dems scramble to figure out how to marginalize stark reality: BetweenDecember 2010 and June 2013, Floridas unemployment rate dropped 4 percentage points, from 11.1 percent to 7.1 percent, and job creation continues apace.

Nevertheless, John Kasich has largely overcome his public-image deficit; Rick Scott is still working on his. He has a way to go.

Kasich's personal style has a lot to do with his success. He connects with people like a T-shirt in the rain. It's easy for him. That's not Scott and it probably never will be Scott. But that doesn't mean the Florida governor is an ineffective leader.

Scott could learn a lesson or two by studying moves that have taken Kasich from the doghouse to the catbird's seat, moves that have him leading in a Quinnipiac poll over his likely Democratic opponent in 2014 by 14 points, 47 percent to 33 percent.

Kasich has "broadened the definition of what a conservative is." And he's learned how to play the both-ends-against-the-middle game well. On the one hand, he's angered his own conservative base by patching things up with muscle-bound Ohio labor and by pushing Medicaid expansion. On the other, he just signed a bill that makes abortion more restrictive.

But issues that are making a big difference in his favor are welfare reform, and especially education reform.

Kasich has demonstrated clear hands-on leadership in education. Scott would be wise to look at his Ohio counterpart's $250 million "Straight A Fund" innovation grant and consider how it might further the best possible ends for Florida. It's turning heads as a star element in Ohio's two-year operating budget.

What Kasich did was call upon Ohio educators to tap their creativity. It's a program that aims to reward creative ideas and programs that significantly boost student achievement, dramatically reduce spending or target an impressive share of resources into the classroom. Grants will go to traditional public schools, community schools, STEM schools, individual teachers and "educational consortia," which include multiple districts, universities, educational service centers or private entities.

The Ohio governor has also embraced a welfare reform issue that reinforces the conservative base -- making able-bodied food stamp recipients work. The issue has also won the support of independents and older swing voters.

In 2011 Kasich and Scott were pretty much in the same doghouse. By his moves, by force of his personality, Kasich has broken free. He's out in the yard again.

But even though Quinnipiac gave Scott anoverall 40 percent favorability rating and 42 percent unfavorable rating in June -- a 7-point improvement from March -- he is still tethered by upside-down ratings that disregard the strides he's made for Florida in less than three years.

He and his team could do worse than look at the progress of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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