LOS ANGELES — Ohio Gov. John Kasich, appearing alongside former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as he mulls a primary challenge to President Donald Trump, said Wednesday that the Republican Party has “never been my master” and that “all of my options are on the table” for 2020.
Speaking at an event promoting a nascent group of moderate Republicans in heavily Democratic California, Kasich said the GOP should cast itself in a more moderate, compromising mold.
The former presidential candidate yoked himself to the legacy of President Ronald Reagan, who “compromised with [former Democratic House Speaker] Tip O’Neill on saving Social Security” and “was very welcoming to immigrants.” Kasich said. “The Republican Party is my vehicle. It’s never been my master.”
He added, “And it’s my job to lead the party.”
Asked if he was ruling out running against Trump as an independent, Kasich, who could also challenge the president in the Republican primary, told reporters, “All of my options are on the table. But I’m a Republican, I’m a conservative, and I just want to add to the public debate and do a good job.”
“I’m not ruling anything in or out,” he said.
Long political allies and friends, Kasich and Schwarzenegger have served as de-facto leaders of a small, anti-Trump movement within the GOP. On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger, who supported Kasich in his failed presidential campaign in 2016, lauded Kasich’s oversight of budgets in Washington as a congressman and in Ohio as governor.
“John, get back to Washington and kick some butt,” he said.
Though Schwarzenegger avoided mentioning Trump by name, he fretted about a party message “drowned out by a few loud voices.” And he called for like-minded donors to apply pressure on the GOP, saying “people that are funding the Republican Party should turn off their financial support.” If starved of funding, Schwarzenegger said, the party might “come to its senses.”
The joint appearance at a youth center in East Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood came at an event to promote “New Way California,” a small group of Republicans seeking to advance a more moderate version of the party in the state. Despite its weak position in California, Republicans here remain significant nationally as a potent source of fundraising and as a battleground for the GOP’s efforts to maintain control of the House. Republicans here are defending seven Republican-held congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
But since Schwarzenegger warned Republicans in 2007 that the party was “dying at the box office” in California, the GOP has withered. Republican Party registration has dropped to 25 percent statewide, and no Republican holds statewide office. California last went for a Republican for president, George H.W. Bush, in 1988.
Yet Trump remains more popular among California Republicans than Schwarzenegger would suggest. And efforts to reshape the party to appeal to the state’s younger, increasingly diverse electorate have met with resistance. State Assemblyman Chad Mayes, who lamented Wednesday that the party had grown “insular,” was pushed out of his post as Assembly Republican leader last year after negotiating with Democrats to extend California’s controversial cap-and-trade program.
Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member from California, called Schwarzenegger “pathetic” and said, “Had I known the soullessness of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I never would have supported [the 2003] recall against Gray Davis.”
As for Kasich, Steel said he hopes that he does run, if only because “Trump kicked his ass so badly in Ohio” in 2016.
Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco attorney and member of the Republican National Committee, warned that California Republicans should not “compromise our principles and become more like the Democrats in order to win elections.” And Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state Republican Party executive director, asked of Schwarzenegger and the “New Way” group, “Rather than start a new Republican group, why don’t they just go form a new party?”
The appearance comes as Kasich mulls a possible presidential run in 2020, either in a primary challenge to Trump or by running as an independent. Kasich is scheduled to return to the early primary state of New Hampshire in April.
Even supporters of the fledgling “New Way” effort acknowledged the difficulty gaining traction in the current GOP. Surveying the crowd, Reed Galen, a strategist who left the party in 2016, said, “The sad thing is it only fills a small gymnasium in East L.A.”