Republican Ted Cruz stormed to a commanding victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday, denting front-runner Donald Trump’s chances of capturing the GOP nomination before the party’s convention. Democrat Bernie Sanders triumphed over Hillary Clinton but still faces a mathematically difficult path to the White House.
Trump’s defeat capped one of the worst periods of his campaign, a brutal stretch that highlighted his weaknesses with women and raised questions about his policy depth. While the billionaire businessman still leads the Republican field, Cruz and an array of anti-Trump forces hope Wisconsin signals the start of his decline.
“Tonight is a turning point,” Cruz told cheering supporters at a victory rally. “It is a call from the hardworking people of Wisconsin to America. We have a choice. A real choice.”
Latest results from Wisconsin, other 2016 primaries.
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With 55 percent of the Republican vote counted, Cruz had 51.4 percent, Trump 32 percent and John Kasich 14.3 percent.
Cruz, a Texas senator with a complicated relationship with Republican leaders, also cast his victory as a moment for unity in a party that has been roiled by a contentious primary campaign.
“Tonight, Wisconsin has lit a candle guiding the way forward. Tonight, we have hope for the future,” Cruz said.
Cruz also cast a more bipartisan tone in his speech, quoting John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill.
But Trump was unbowed. His campaign put out a biting statement: “Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet — he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump.”
Some Wisconsin Republicans said Trump’s demeaning attitude and attacks on Cruz — and especially the senator’s wife, Heidi — may have backfired.
“That stung him badly,” said Rep. Reid Ribble, who represents Appleton and Green Bay in Congress and endorsed Cruz days ahead of the primary. “There’s a real strong sense of family. The idea that somebody would attack anybody’s wife, based on just physical appearance, was just so insulting to the typical father, to the typical husband and to the typical woman.”
For Sanders, Wisconsin was the latest in a string of victories that have given him an incentive to keep competing against Clinton. But he still trails her in the pledged delegate count and has so far been unable to persuade superdelegates — the party officials who can back any candidate — to drop their allegiance to the former secretary of state and back his campaign.
With 52 percent of the vote counted, Sanders led Clinton by a 54.6-45.1 percentage point margin.
At a raucous rally in Wyoming, Sanders cast his victory as a sign of mounting momentum for his campaign.
“With our victory tonight is Wisconsin, we have now won 7 out of 8 of the last caucuses and primaries,” he declared.
“I think the people of this country are ready for a political revolution,” Sanders added.
The results in Wisconsin make it likely both parties’ primaries will continue deep into the spring, draping front-runners Trump and Clinton in uncertainty and preventing both from fully setting their sights on the general election.
With an overwhelming white electorate and liberal pockets of voters, Wisconsin was favorable territory for Sanders. In a sign of Clinton’s low expectations in the Midwestern state, she spent Tuesday night at a fundraiser with top donors in New York City.
Clinton congratulated Sanders on Twitter and thanked her supporters in Wisconsin. “To all the voters and volunteers who poured your hearts into this campaign: Forward!” she wrote.
Sanders’ win will net him a handful of additional delegates, but he'll still lag Clinton significantly. With 86 delegates at stake in Wisconsin, Sanders will pick up at least 44 and Clinton will gain at least 28.
That means Sanders must still win 67 percent of the remaining delegates and uncommitted superdelegates in order to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton’s campaign has cast her overall lead as nearly insurmountable. Yet Sanders’ continued presence in the race has become an irritant for the former secretary of state, keeping her from turning her attention to the general election.
Tough road ahead
Trump haters shouldn’t get too excited about Ted Cruz’s big Wisconsin victory Tuesday.
Peek ahead and the future for the stop-Trump forces is still daunting:
- The Republican race now turns to Northeastern states, where the senator from Texas has shown little appeal.
- He remains far behind Trump in convention delegates.
- Cruz’s Wisconsin win came after everything went perfectly for him. Not only did Trump stumble, but Wisconsin conservatives are unusually well-organized. Cruz will be fortunate to duplicate those advantages in upcoming primaries.
The Cruz victory does come with some benefits that might linger. Cruz is also likely to get another boost this weekend, when Colorado’s Republican conventions pick delegates.
Then he heads toward a steep political highway cluttered with obstacles. Virtually all the remaining GOP contests are primaries, which usually favor Trump. Cruz excels at party caucuses and conventions, which attract activists and those eager to promote the sort of staunch conservative ideology Cruz so passionately articulates.
Primaries are messier affairs. In several states, independents can vote. Turnout is bigger, since people can vote all day rather than for the few hours caucuses and conventions meet. Bigger blocs of voters are often less committed to a single ideology.
The next primary stop is New York on April 19. It’s Trump’s home state. Voters know him and his foibles well, and Republicans said they preferred the billionaire real estate developer overwhelmingly over Cruz in a RealClearPolitics average of four late March polls.
New York’s 95 delegates are more than those available in Wisconsin and Colorado combined.
A week later, five potentially Trump-friendly states vote: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Each has a long and, more important, recent history of electing center-right Republicans.
A bigger problem for Trump in those states could be Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who is in a statistical tie with Trump in Pennsylvania.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram Washington bureau and The Associated Press.