Wisconsin seen as key state for Ted Cruz in stop-Trump movement

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the Women's National Republican Club in New York on March 23, 2016.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the Women’s National Republican Club in New York on March 23, 2016.

(Richard Drew / AP)
The Washington Post

In kicking off his campaign for Wisconsin’s April 5 presidential primary, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas headed Wednesday to conservative Waukesha County for a talk with a conservative radio host. There’s a reason for that. In a typical day here in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Republicans can spin their radio dials and have their pick of anti-Donald Trump commentary.

“What’s up with the orange or red face paint?” asked WISN’s Jay Weber.

“Trump’s followers don’t even monitor politics,” said WISN’s Vicki McKenna.

“The GOP’s current dumpster fire was set and largely fueled by some national talk show hosts who have decided that their infatuation with Donald Trump overrode their commitment to conservative principles,” wrote WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes, the radio host slated to interview Cruz.


Wisconsin - home of the speaker of the House, the Republican National Committee chairman and a local GOP that has dismantled parts of postwar liberalism - has become the Masada of the stop-Trump movement.

In the next 13 days, the state is expected to absorb millions of dollars in anti-Trump ads, including at least $2 million from the Club for Growth, which officially endorsed Cruz this week. There’s pressure on Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisconsin, to endorse Cruz before the primary, and Cruz is hinting that he will barnstorm the state as Kasich and Trump look eastward.

“Ted sends his regards,” Cruz’s wife, Heidi, told campaign volunteers at the first of three stops Wednesday in suburban Milwaukee. “We’re going to be in this state from now through the election.”

At a glance, Wisconsin looks like the first genuine three-way race of the long primary. It’s the first state where all voting - even early voting, which began Monday, will occur after the end of Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign. It’s also in a region that has basically split between Cruz, Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

That offers Cruz the chance to surprise in what superficially looks like enemy terrain. Even a narrow win would give Cruz a shot at all 42 of the state’s delegates. Wisconsin’s delegate-picking system - winner-take-all statewide, then winner-take-all by district - poses undeniable challenges for both Trump and Kasich.

“We’re going to do fine here,” Kasich said after a Milwaukee County town hall event Wednesday. “I’m not going to predict we’re gonna win here.”

Trump may also be a harder sell here than in any Midwestern state. The evidence for that has been collected by Marquette Law School in a series of polls analyzed by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert. In rural Wisconsin, Trump is broadly popular with Republicans. But in the “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, his negative rating with Republicans is 39 points - almost as high as inside Milwaukee. That is a radical difference from Illinois and Michigan, where Trump built winning margins in the largest cities and their suburbs.

“There’s kind of a fundamental decency about Wisconsinites that you can’t downplay,” Sykes said Tuesday night, poking through a salad at a Washington County supper club.


“We’ve never had a huge division between the tea party and the establishment. We’ve got think tanks and radio talk shows that have been through the fire, and are really intellectually driven. And you don’t get that elsewhere.”

Cruz’s legislative allies in Wisconsin make the same argument, saying that better-informed voters who have been activated through a series of tight elections and recall contests are going to turn on Trump.

No Wisconsin legislators have endorsed Trump, and the anti-Trump sentiment has been unusually blunt. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisconsin, who represents the area around Green Bay and is retiring this year, was the first member of Congress to say he could not support Trump even if he became the party’s nominee.

“You can’t be calling women bimbos, we can’t just be kicking sand in the sandbox and saying ‘You’re dumb’ and ‘You’re a loser,’ ” Ribble told USA Today in September. “We actually need a grown-up, not a 3-year-old, in the White House.”


But if Cruz has momentum here, it might be better described as anti-Trump than pro-Cruz. The Texan has a tense relationship with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, and Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin, two members of the 2010 tea party class who opposed Cruz’s 2013 effort to defund the Affordable Care Act through a government shutdown.

In an interview with Sykes this week, Walker bemoaned that his “friend” Kasich had no direct path to the nomination, adding after some prodding that “Senator Cruz is the only one who’s got a chance.”

Wisconsin’s primary is also open to Democrats and independents, a system that has cost Cruz in other states. But conservatives expect this year’s primary to skew more Republican, thanks to a competitive Democratic primary and a nasty race for state Supreme Court.

Rep. Jim Steineke, the majority leader of the Republican-run Assembly, said he saw Walker’s Republican Party as a model for the country. He said Trump would wreck that model.


“Cruz is going to win Wisconsin,” Steineke said. “Whoever wins Wisconsin is likely to be the nominee.”