CONCORD, N.H. — Ohio Gov. John Kasich is campaigning again in New Hampshire.
The former presidential candidate and chief Donald Trump critic is the first of 2016’s failed GOP hopefuls to return to the state since the February primary.
Kasich is in New Hampshire this time on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu. But on a two-day trip through the state, he also is unabashedly visiting for himself.
“I intend to keep speaking, and you all in New Hampshire gave me the chance to do it,” Kasich declared to supporters at a Sunday gathering laced with nostalgia that at times felt like a campaign stump. “I don’t want to blow it.”
Kasich credits New Hampshire, home of the first primary, with keeping his presidential hopes alive after he took second in February’s contest. His trip, which ended Monday, marked his first return since.
Kasich is ribbing reporters for speculating about a 2020 candidacy — but he’s hinting at interest.
“You know anything’s possible,” he told The Associated Press on Sunday. “But if I said too much my wife not might let me move back in when I get home from New Hampshire.”
Since exiting the race in May, Kasich has refused to back Trump, saying the Republican nominee is too divisive. But he’s on a cross-country tour campaigning with down-ballot Republicans. He’s stumped with Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio and one-time primary rival Rand Paul of Kentucky. His calendar includes events in Nevada, Georgia, Arizona, Florida and Massachusetts.
These trips offer Kasich an opportunity to stay visible on a national scale even as he effectively sits out the presidential election. Kasich said the Republican party is stuck in the 1980s and needs a “whole new agenda” — one that he’d like a hand in building. He envisions a party focused more on treating drug addiction and mental illness, student debt and the high costs of prescription drugs, ideas that sound more out of a Hillary Clinton speech than one from Trump.
“If you’re singing a song that was written 30 years ago, unless you’re Frank Sinatra, people lose interest,” Kasich said of the party’s agenda.
But Kasich’s visit to New Hampshire notably packs more weight than his other campaign stops. Sununu is the only non-incumbent whom Kasich is endorsing in a contested primary, and though Sununu is part of a well-known New Hampshire political family, he does not have a lock on winning the Sept. 13 primary — a four-way contest. Sununu’s brother, former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu, was one of Kasich’s strongest backers in the primary. The two-day stop didn’t include events with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is choreographing a difficult dance around Trump in her highly competitive re-election bid.
The list of attendees at Kasich’s Sunday gathering, billed as a thank you to his supporters, included long-time backers and a who’s who of New Hampshire Republicans. He’s not hiding his joy at being back in front of a state that has treated him well before, and may again.
“Do you understand how much I love you all?” he asked. “I don’t think you understand this.”
Jim Merrill, a Republican operative who ran Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire campaigns, said Kasich’s return is outside the norm. Past White House hopefuls have returned to New Hampshire during the general election before, but typically to campaign with the winning nominee.
“It’s certainly uncommon for a candidate who ran during this cycle to come back to New Hampshire to rally his former supporters rather than come up and support the ticket,” Merrill said.
Still, Kasich and other Republicans must navigate the waters of 2016 before 2020 is in play.
Although he made himself one of Trump’s most high-profile critics, Kasich becomes visibly annoyed when asked to comment on several of the businessman’s recent remarks, including his shifting stance on immigration. Kasich was one of the GOP candidates to embrace a path to legalization for people living in the country illegally. It’s a position that hurt him in the primary but might have helped him appeal to more moderate general election voters.
Trump now finds himself wrestling with the same issue, and gave a series of mixed signals last week on whether he still supports using a deportation force to remove people who are in the United States illegally. He is set to deliver a speech on Wednesday clarifying his stance.
“Everything that I mean to say, I’ve said with my actions louder than my words,” Kasich said. “I really don’t have anything more to add about Donald Trump.”
Kasich declares he will not vote for Clinton either. But he’s offering no clarity for voters who face the same dilemma. Asked if he’d definitely vote for a candidate for president in November, Kasich simply said: “We’ll see.”