Four years ago, Wisconsin was the Waterloo for the conservative insurgency against the Republican political establishment.
Former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum had just come off his biggest win as a presidential candidate in Louisiana’s primary and was looking at a big win in America’s Dairy Land to give him momentum going into the critical Keystone State primary.
Unfortunately, Santorum fell seven points short, thanks in no small part to future House Speaker and GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s personal involvement in Romney’s Badger State campaign.
The loss in Wisconsin literally broke Santorum and the 2012 conservative rebellion, with Santorum forced out shortly thereafter and Romney becoming the de facto nominee.
In 2016, the voters of Wisconsin, once again occupying a critical position on the Republican primary calendar, made a consequential decision.
But instead of pulling the plug on the GOP presidential nomination battle, Wisconsin Republicans delivered results that will impede billionaire business Donald Trump’s attempt to cross the delegate nomination threshold before the Republican National Convention and gave a boost to Texas US Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential bid.
Unlike in 2012, now-Speaker Ryan sat out the primary, not endorsing a candidate but having made his general dislike of Donald Trump well known far advance of the election in his state. However where Ryan abstained, another Wisconsin Republican of stature weighed in on the race.
One-time presidential candidate and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker played the role of the kingmaker as the bete noir of public sector unions actively pushed Cruz’s candidacy.
The thrice elected (counting the recall) Walker is popular with Republican voters and while Walker’s blessing alone did not deliver the state to Cruz, the governor’s endorsement was likely the difference between a modest win and the stunning rout that helped Cruz net 30 delegates.
For Trump, the Wisconsin primary was a bitter harvest after weeks of self-inflicted rhetorical wounds, from threatening Cruz’s wife and mocking her looks on Twitter, to making an obnoxious statement on abortion that simultaneously offended both pro-lifers and pro-abortion forces. Trump may very well be the first politician to accomplish that feat.
For Cruz, Wisconsin is a milestone as he continues to coalesce support from Republicans who oppose Trump’s nomination and fear the drastic fallout expected in congressional races, including the probable loss of the US Senate, if the caustic New York real estate developer ends up being the party standard bearer in November.
And then there is Ohio governor John Kasich, the candidate who just won’t go away. Wisconsin was supposed to be friendlier turf for the self-proclaimed best Republican candidate who hasn’t won outside of Ohio. After trying to compete there Kasich left the state empty handed. Even more telling for Kasich Is how his Wisconsin support cratered.
Heading into election day, Kasich had been polling between 18-22% but his numbers plunged to 14% while Cruz’s jumped up by roughly the same margin, indicating that Kasich is indeed sitting on votes that would go to the Texan if the Buckeye were not in the race.
While adamant moderates might like the electoral escape of casting their ballot for Kasich as a means of “voting against Trump” without sullying their consciences by backing Cruz, the truth is these individuals are enabling Trump’s nomination by facilitating the pluralities that have helped him secure boat loads of delegates, especially in winner take all and winner take most states.
Colorado showcased Cruz’s organizational superiority while exemplifying the Trump Train’s dysfunction at basic delegate management and Kasich’s impotence to do anything to advance his own candidacy.
Colorado, Wisconsin, and North Dakota gave Cruz over 80 committed and “soft” delegates, an amount close to the 95 delegates that New York will award in their April 19th primary.
The delegate winnings at the start of the month could help absorb the expected blow to Cruz in the contests held in the latter half of April when the political map heads to the northeast to states that haven’t gone Republican since Bush ’88 in the case of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, and not since Reagan ’84 (New York, Rhode Island).
However with a combined 267 delegates at stake, Cruz, who is not expected to win any of them, must minimize the bleeding by scoring delegates via the congressional districts as the only purely proportional state is Rhode Island, which only has 19 delegates.
Knowing the terrain gets friendlier to Cruz in May and June, the northeast primaries is the time where Trump will spike the football and get his political house in order. Trump’s target is to break the 900 mark by May 1st while Cruz needs to be in the 600s to forestall a stampede to The Donald.