COLUMBUS — As Ohio Gov. John Kasich waxed philosophic during his final State of the State address Tuesday night, he dropped conflicting verbal bread crumbs about his political future.
“The race isn’t over for us,” the Republican declared in the unusual speech’s final lines. “We can’t even see the finish line it’s so far in the future.”
That may simply have referred to his remaining 10 months as a term-limited governor — or it could confirm speculation that Kasich is positioning to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.
Kasich has remained one of the GOP’s most vocal Trump detractors nationally since dropping his rival presidential bid in 2016, a role that’s alienated some Republicans in his closely divided home state.
His lieutenant governor has downplayed Kasich’s backing of her in the fall governor’s race and one Republican U.S. Senate candidate said he’d “rather get some fatal disease” than receive Kasich’s endorsement.
Those trials and tribulations didn’t appear far from Kasich’s mind on Tuesday. The lessons he drew from most of the philosophers and theologians referenced in the speech were tailor made for a political maverick.
There was Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, who Kasich said “had to flee for his life but, today, he stands out as one of the greats of all time.”
Kasich named as another favorite, St. Augustine, who fought “a battle of his wills” between his drives to embrace secular life or to follow God until “he finally became one of the greatest saints.”
And there was William Wilberforce, a leader in the movement to stop the slave trade who envisioned “a new day where we learn how to respect one another.”
“Wilberforce fought over many, many years,” recounted Kasich, who said he keeps an image of Wilberforce on his phone. “He lost his life because of this. He wore himself completely out.”
Amid the forward-looking hints, though, the 65-year-old Kasich sprinkled suggestions that he’s mentally bracing to end his long career in elective office when his term’s out. The run has included Kasich’s election as Ohio’s youngest state senator in 1978, 18 years in Congress and two unsuccessful presidential bids.
“You know, the worst thing in life is not to lose an election; the worst thing in life is to serve yourself instead of others,” Kasich said. “I have to remind myself of that all the time.”
He told the crowd at Otterbein University: “I’ve done my best.”
“All I’ve ever tried to do is to try to lift myself as far as I could go to meet the honor of that office, any of the offices I’ve ever held, to lift myself, to reach a little higher so I could be worthy of it,” he said.
Kasich used his final Governor’s Courage Awards to honor three Ohioans who made personal sacrifices to help others. He also praised German political dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Israeli human rights activist Natan Sharansky and whistleblowers at Wells Fargo bank and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We love these people. Some of them could be us,” Kasich said. “They have the courage to live what they believed in the face of adversity. They have made an indelible impression. They’ve inspired us, and what they’ve done will never be — will never, ever be forgotten.”