FLORENCE, S.C. — The race for the Republican presidential nomination erupted in anger as Gov. John Kasich accused Jeb Bush of “trashing” his opponents following the former Florida governor’s criticism of Kasich using federal dollars to expand health coverage to low-income people.
Not only did Kasich say Thursday that Bush might tarnish the legacy of a family which has produced two presidents, but John Weaver, Kasich’s top strategist, told reporters on a conference call that Bush’s campaign has “all the joy of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Bush provoked the battle Wednesday when he told a gathering in suburban Charleston that by accepting federal money to add coverage to low-income people, Kasich was making “more and more people dependent upon government,” adding “the fact that most of it is being funded by Washington, not the state is not relevant here. It’s still government. Someone has to pay for it.”
The sharp exchanges took place as both Bush and Kasich are among five Republican candidates engaged in a major battle in the crucial Feb. 20 South Carolina Republican Party primary.
Bush is trying to deal a punishing blow to Kasich by pointing out the Ohio governor accepted hundreds of millions of Medicaid dollars made available through the 2010 health law, which was signed by President Barack Obama.
Kasich and the other Republican presidential candidates have vowed to repeal the law, which offers federal subsidies to middle income people to buy private insurance policies and by expanding access to Medicaid, the joint federal and state program.
Speaking to reporters after he addressed a packed house of about 250 people in a pancake restaurant near Myrtle Beach, Kasich vigorously defended his decision to accept federal dollars through the health law to provide health coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income people in Ohio who lacked health insurance
“I am for repealing Obamacare,” Kasich said. “But expanding Medicaid at this point, bringing our dollars back is working. It’s saving money and it’s saving lives. And that’s what really matters at the end of the day.”
Kasich went on to say that Bush needs to be more positive. “I don’t know what’s thinking. Does he realize the family legacy? Spending all your time being negative? But I don’t have time for that.”
In his conference call after Kasich spoke, Weaver stepped up the assault on Bush, calling the attacks “hypocrisy” and “a sign of desperation.”
In a biting reference to the more than $100 million in campaign money raised by Bush and a super-PAC supporting him, Weaver said “if you can’t sell yourself after you spent $120 million, it’s time for you to kind of re-think why you’re running and whether you’re doing harm to the party and your chances in the general election.”
But Bush’s attacks have placed Kasich in the awkward position of saying while he wants to repeal the 2010 law, he may want to retain the section providing states with billions of new Medicaid dollars.
Kasich also has vowed to set the government on a path to balance the federal budget within the next decade, but the additional Medicaid spending has only made the projected federal deficit of $544 billion for the 2016 spending year even larger.
Following his second-place finish in Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary, Kasich has found his record being more thoroughly examined by his potential opponents. In his appearance at the pancake restaurant he insisted while he wanted to offer a positive message and “talk about the sun coming up,” Kasich said, “I don’t take crap from anybody.”
Kasich appears to be counting on the hope that after George H.W. Bush from 1989 through the first month of 1993 and George W. Bush from 2001 through the first month of 2009, Republican voters are weary of electing another member of the family.
“I think the era of the Bushes is gone,” said Billy Long, 50, who traveled from North Carolina to listen to Kasich. Long said Bush was “a great governor, a great family. But his time has passed.”