Politics & Policy

Why Cruz Is Poised to Stop Trump in Wisconsin

Cruz campaigns in Dane, Wisc., March 24, 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Wisconsin has outsized importance now as the only Republican presidential primary until New York’s on April 19. If Donald Trump wins, he will be in a good position to win the GOP nomination on the first ballot. If he loses in Wisconsin on April 5, his momentum will take a real hit.

On the surface, Wisconsin looks like classic Trump Territory. It’s an open primary, and Trump polls better when independents are allowed to vote in GOP primaries. It’s quite a blue-collar state, with 57 percent of those who voted in the 2012 primary lacking a college degree. A relatively high 62 percent also are not Evangelical Christians.

But the only two public polls taken in the last month show Ted Cruz with a narrow lead.

A big factor is Governor Scott Walker’s reshaping of conservatism in the state since he beat back union opponents of his reforms in 2011 and survived a recall attempt in 2012. Mark Block, a political strategist, says that the state’s conservatives expect substantive policy debates and are sophisticated in evaluating candidates.

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Many of them are unimpressed with Trump. During debates with Walker when he was a presidential candidate last summer, Trump criticized him for being inflexible with unions. “He said some untrue things about the reforms in Wisconsin,” Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch told me in Washington last week. She has not endorsed a candidate but is decidedly cool to Trump.

Governor Walker is at least as cool, and he might announce an endorsement of Ted Cruz this coming week.

“I think it’s fair to say that my views, my beliefs, my strategy overall would probably be more aligned with either Senator Ted Cruz or Governor John Kasich,” Mr. Walker told WTMJ Radio’s Charlie Sykes. “If you’re just looking at the numbers objectively, Ted Cruz — Senator Cruz is the only one who’s got a chance other than Donald Trump to win the nomination.”

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Trump also lacks two factors in Wisconsin that have served him well in other states: prominent local supporters and talk-radio air cover. In Arizona, for example, he had the backing of former governor Jan Brewer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, and several state legislators. In Wisconsin, the most visible elected official supporting Trump is Van Mobley, president of the board of trustees of Thiensville, a small Milwaukee suburb of 3,223 people.

#share#As for talk radio, the environment in Wisconsin is dramatically different from what it is in other states, where Trump has enjoyed praise from hosts such as Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, and Sean Hannity. (Savage is now threatening to withdraw his support for Trump in the wake of Trump’s attacks on Heidi Cruz, and Rush Limbaugh is often complimentary of Cruz.)

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In Wisconsin, the key talk-radio hosts are hostile to Trump. Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch told me that talk-show hosts such as Sykes, Mark Belling, and Vicki McKenna “are used to making positive arguments for conservative ideas while also arguing for an electable candidate.” Mark Graul, a Wisconsin GOP strategist not with any campaign, told Politico:

A leading factor is that conservative media, particularly talk radio, has been very anti-Trump from the start, and that those voices have gone from being anti-Trump to being pro-Cruz, as the election now comes to Wisconsin — that will be very beneficial to Senator Cruz in [suburban Milwaukee] areas where probably 40 percent of the Republican vote comes from in two weeks.

Wisconsin is also a reasonably priced state for TV advertising, and anti-Trump groups such as The Club for Growth are taking advantage of that. The Club is expected to spend some $2 million on ads in the state. Its new 30-second spot entitled “Math” argues that Cruz is the only candidate who can beat Trump. The message: “It’s time to put differences aside. To stop Trump, vote for Cruz.”

#related#It’s certainly possible that Trump can make a comeback in Wisconsin, and he will be in the state for a major rally on Tuesday. But he is not a natural fit for a state whose most influential Republican is House Speaker Paul Ryan. After all, Ryan’s politics are solidly grounded in ideas and a belief that civility in public life is possible. Despite the pitched battles of Walker’s first terms, the notion of “Wisconsin Nice” still carries some currency here.

Wisconsin will witness a pitched battle for the heart of the Republican party until April 5, and the outcome may have consequences not only for the nomination fight but also for the broader definition of what kind of Republican party will emerge from this year’s elections.

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