COLUMBUS, Ohio — In his grand Statehouse office beneath a bust of Lincoln, Gov. John R. Kasich let loose on fellow Republicans in Washington.
“I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said, sitting at the head of a burnished table as members of his cabinet lingered after a meeting. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”
“You know what?” he said. “The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the W.P.A.”
Ever since Republicans in Congress shut down the federal government in an attempt to remove funding for President Obama’s health care law, Republican governors have been trying to distance themselves from Washington.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin schooled lawmakers in a Washington Post opinion column midway through the 16-day shutdown on “What Wisconsin Can Teach Washington.” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, with a record of bipartisan support at home, remarked after a visit to the nation’s capital, “If I was in the Senate right now, I’d kill myself.”
But few have gone further than Mr. Kasich in critiquing his party’s views on poverty programs, and last week he circumvented his own Republican legislature and its Tea Party wing by using a little-known state board to expand Medicaid to 275,000 poor Ohioans under President Obama’s health care law.
Once a leader of the conservative firebrands in Congress under Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, Mr. Kasich has surprised and disarmed some former critics on the left with his championing of Ohio’s disadvantaged, which he frames as a matter of Christian compassion.
He embodies conventional Republican fiscal priorities — balancing the budget by cutting aid to local governments and education — but he defies many conservatives in believing government should ensure a strong social safety net. In his three years as governor, he has expanded programs for the mentally ill, fought the nursing home lobby to bring down Medicaid costs and backed Cleveland’s Democratic mayor, Frank Jackson, in raising local taxes to improve schools.
To some Ohio analysts, those moves are a reaction to the humiliating defeat Mr. Kasich suffered in 2011 when voters in a statewide referendum overturned a law stripping public employees of bargaining rights. Before the vote, Mr. Kasich’s approval in this quintessential swing state plunged.
Now, as the governor’s image has softened, his poll numbers have improved heading into a re-election race next year against the likely Democratic nominee, Ed FitzGerald, the executive of Cuyahoga County.
He still angers many on the left; he signed a budget in June that cut revenues to local governments and mandates that women seeking an abortion listen to the fetal heartbeat. Democrats see his centrist swing as mere calculation, a prelude to a tough re-election fight.
“This is someone who realized he had to get to the center and chose Medicaid as the issue,” said Danny Kanner, communications director of the Democratic Governors Association. “That doesn’t erase the first three years of his governorship when he pursued polices that rewarded the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.”
Ohioans earning in the top 1 percent will see a $6,000 tax cut under the latest budget passed by the Republican-led legislature, while those in the bottom fifth will see a $12 increase, according to Policy Matters Ohio, an independent research group.