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How John Kasich surged ahead in Ohio re-election race

"It's not much of a race, and hasn't been for probably a month and a half," said University of Dayton political scientist Dan Birdsong.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is introduced by Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor during a rally at Darke County GOP headquarters, on Oct. 13, 2014, in Greenville, Ohio.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is introduced by Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor during a rally at Darke County GOP headquarters, on Oct. 13, 2014, in Greenville, Ohio.

It's never over until it's over, but Ohio's gubernatorial race isn't exactly neck and neck right now. Recent polls have shown incumbent Republican Gov. John Kasich holding a formidable lead over his Democratic challenger, Ed Fitzgerald. RealClearPolitics' polling average shows Kasich with an advantage of more than 20 points.

Although nearly all the polls taken of the race since its inception have tended to show Kasich in the lead, the governor's advantage seems to have seriously widened over the summer. Whereas a New York Times/CBS/YouGov poll taken in July favored Kasich by 6 points, the same pollster found that lead had increased to 13 points by late August. By mid-to-late October, Kasich was leading Fitzgerald in the YouGov poll by 19 points.

"It's not much of a race and hasn't been for probably a month and a half, maybe more than that," said University of Dayton political scientist Dan Birdsong.

That makes Kasich something of an outlier among Republican governors. Most of those running for reelection this year have found themselves in difficult races. Yet Kasich appears unruffled by his opponent, and the polls have given him little reason to feel otherwise.

Kasich has a reputation nationwide for being something of a moderate Republican, although Fitzgerald's campaign disputes that characterization. What is indisputable is that Kasich was one of a handful of GOP governors who agreed to expand Medicaid in his state under the Affordable Care Act. A 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that 48% of Ohioans -- mostly Democrats -- favored Medicaid expansion, with 42% opposed. And after an early, failed experiment in limiting collective bargaining for public workers à la Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kasich seems to have shied away from aggressive partisan warfare on economic issues.

A handful of rough news stories hit the Fitzgerald campaign over the summer, most notably an August report that said Fitzgerald had gone 10 years without holding a permanent driver's license. Compounding the headaches, the local press around that time also reported that police had found Fitzgerald in his car with a woman who was not his wife during a late-night encounter in 2012. The campaign replied that Fitzgerald was simply driving the woman, a friend from Ireland, back to her hotel.

Nonetheless, the two stories seem to have caused lingering problems for the Democratic candidate, who lacked Kasich's preexisting name recognition. Meanwhile, the sitting governor has also maintained an enormous cash advantage over his opponent. In September alone, Kasich raked in $1.5 million to Fitzgerald's $55,000. Fitzgerald spokesperson Lauren Hitt, responding to a question about what the campaign could have done differently, told msnbc she "wish[es] we could have raised more money."

"The biggest difference has always come down to the difference in money, and that's the disadvantage you have when you're running against an incumbent," she said.

Nonetheless, Hitt chalked up Kasich's moderate image as being due to "just a lack of information." At the same time that he was expanding Medicaid, she said, Kasich was also approving restrictive voting legislation and signing off on hard line anti-abortion measures. Currently, the state is moving to shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in the greater Cincinnati area.

None of which has tarred Kasich's image as a Republican reformer and "compassionate conservative" in the eyes of the national press. Rumor has it that Kasich will try and parlay that image into a 2016 run. But although Kasich has been seen courting major Republican donors outside of Ohio, he has not yet been clear regarding his plans for the next couple of years.