This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.com
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For more than two months now, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has insisted he is the only realistic Republican alternative to Donald Trump. Cruz asserted this after the first votes were counted in Iowa, on Feb. 1—even as he only narrowly edged Trump and Marco Rubio in a three-way photo finish.
Cruz suggested he was the logical anti-Trump candidate a week later in New Hampshire, even while finishing a weak third behind Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The freshman senator from Texas stuck to his story on Super Tuesday, even as Trump won seven states and Cruz took just three.
Now, however, after swamping the field in Wisconsin with more votes than Trump and Kasich combined, Cruz’s story line is finally falling into place.
“Tonight is a turning point,” an ebullient Cruz told his supporters in Milwaukee. “It is a rallying cry.”
The Wisconsin results also suggested that Trump’s support might have a “ceiling” after all. At the beginning of the year, more than a dozen candidates vied for the GOP nomination, with a bunching effect among the non-Trumps. When Trump won his landslide victory in New Hampshire, he did so with just 35 percent of the vote. In Wisconsin, Trump’s percentage was almost identical to that—but in a three-man field, it was only good for second place. In 10 of the other states he has won, Trump has prevailed with less than 40 percent of the vote.
The results in the Badger State will likely do little to quiet Trump’s and Cruz’s frustrations with John Kasich, whose only hope is for a contested convention in Cleveland. In that scenario, the mutual animosity between the Cruz and Trump camps make Kasich a potential compromise candidate.
For now, however, Kasich has won only his home state, with no other ripe target on the horizon. Cruz has suggested Kasich should drop out; Trump reportedly complained about Kasich’s continued presence to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus during a meeting in Washington last week.
“Kasich shouldn't be allowed to continue, and the RNC shouldn't allow him to continue,” Trump told reporters in Wisconsin on Sunday. But Kasich and his top campaign officials insist they will remain in the race and that they have as strong a case as ever to do so after Wisconsin.
“This week will be remembered as the one in which Ted Cruz and Donald Trump both effectively admitted they will not reach the GOP convention with enough bound delegates to be the nominee,” John Weaver, chief strategist to Kasich, wrote in a memo circulated to reporters Tuesday night.
The New York billionaire did not speak publicly Tuesday night, but his campaign released a written statement stoking its antipathy for the victor.
“Donald J. Trump withstood the onslaught of the establishment yet again,” it said. “Lyin’ Ted Cruz had the governor of Wisconsin, many conservative talk radio show hosts, and the entire party apparatus behind him. Not only was he propelled by the anti-Trump super PAC’s spending countless millions of dollars on false advertising against Mr. Trump, but [Cruz] was coordinating with his own super PACs (which is illegal) who totally control him.”
There has been no evidence of such coordination, but Trump charged recently that an ad by an outside group featuring a nude photo of his wife, Melania, had been Cruz’s doing.
“Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet,” the statement continued. “He is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump.”
The statement ended by predicting a big win for Trump in two weeks in New York, which now becomes center court—for both parties—in the fight for presidency.
Trump could, mathematically speaking, still hit the delegate mark he would need to lock up the nomination in regulation time, and his campaign continues to operate with that goal. In hopes of solidifying Trump’s lead in delegate-rich New York, Trump reportedly plans to deliver a series of policy speeches, a rarity for a candidate who has leaned on his entertaining, off-the-cuff style and only on rare occasions has used prepared remarks.
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told the Washington Post that the speeches are not a strategy shift, but “the natural maturation of the campaign.”
It’s a campaign that many observers, even some sympathetic to Trump’s candidacy, have believed was badly in need of maturation. Although the landscape, demographics, and recent political history in Wisconsin were strongly hostile to Trump, he did not make things easier on himself with a series of gaffes and missteps in the last 10 days of the campaign. These included saying that women who have abortions should be jailed, wistfully ruminating about South Korea and Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, and going around the state bad-mouthing Gov. Scott Walker, a Cruz supporter who is very popular with Wisconsin Republicans.
At the end, Trump seemed to know he was going to be beaten—though he certainly didn’t blame himself.
“In certain areas, the city areas, I’m not doing well,” Trump admitted in Racine. “I’m not doing well because nobody knows my message. They were given misinformation.”
Powerful forces in the state coalesced against Trump at a crucial moment. In addition to Walker, who hit the campaign trail with Cruz, Wisconsin’s influential network of conservative talk radio hosts also emerged as a vocal foe to Trump: Charlie Sykes, who supports Cruz, memorably eviscerated Trump during an interview on his show.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Cruz thanked his allies, while quoting John F. Kennedy about lighting the path forward, and a Winston Churchill thought about how leaders must also look to the future.
“Tonight, Wisconsin has lit a candle guiding the way forward,” Cruz said, attempting to connect himself to those leaders. “Tonight is about unity, and tonight is about hope.”
If the eloquence seemed forced, Cruz and his supporters didn’t mind. Tuesday belonged to them. Now the question for the Republican Party is whether New York will follow suit—and what happens subsequently in other pivotal states, including Pennsylvania in late April, and the crown jewel, California, in early June.
Wisconsin’s results notwithstanding, Cruz almost certainly cannot amass the 1,237 delegates he needs to win on a first ballot in Cleveland. But now he—and many other Republicans—can see into that future Cruz talked about, and see that Trump might not win enough delegates either.
Brokered convention, anyone?