PEWAUKEE, Wis. — Tonight, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) kicks off his campaign for Wisconsin’s April 5 presidential primary, he will head to conservative Waukesha County and 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?” asks WISN’s Jay Weber.
“Trump's followers don't even monitor politics,” says 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,” writes WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes, who will be interviewing Cruz at Wednesday night’s event.
Wisconsin, home to 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, it 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 is pressure on Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) 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 suburban Milwaukee stops on Wednesday. “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 without the presence of Marco Rubio, who recently ended his campaign. It’s also a region that has basically split between Cruz, Donald Trump and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio). Across Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, Cruz won an average 21.7 percent of the vote; in the biggest suburbs of each state, he frequently ran behind Kasich.
That offers Cruz the chance to surprise, and reset the campaign narrative, in what superficially looks like enemy terrain. Even a narrow win would given 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 gonna do fine here," Kasich said after a Milwaukee County town hall on Wednesday. "I'm not gonna predict we're gonna win here."
And Trump may be a harder sell here than in any Midwestern state. The evidence for that has been collected by Marquette University Law School, in polls analyzed by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert. In rural Wisconsin, Trump is broadly popular among Republicans. In the “WOW” counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington, his negative rating among Republicans is 39 points. It’s almost as high in Milwaukee itself. That’s 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 at a salad at a Ozaukee 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. I was driving here listening to Sean Hannity, and after 15 seconds, I could feel myself getting dumber.”
Cruz’s legislative allies in Wisconsin make the same argument, saying that better-informed voters, who have been activated through tight elections and recall contests, are going to turn on Trump.
“We’ve got a well-informed conservative majority here,” said Rep. Jesse Kremer, an early Cruz endorser who has introduced bills to expand gun rights and gender-restrict school bathrooms. “Outside the area with strong talk radio, I think Trump might do better. There isn’t as much information for them.”
Rep. Dave Craig, who endorsed Cruz only after other candidates had dropped out, said the end of Rubio’s campaign would create a “tidal wave” for Cruz. The WOW counties were simply not comparable with anything else in the Midwest. In 2012, they cast close to 370,000 votes, and Barack Obama lost them by a 2-to-1 margin.
“The suburbs are almost lockstep conservative, and talk radio has a lot to do with that,” he said.
No Wisconsin legislators have endorsed Trump anywhere. Anti-Trump sentiment also has been unusually blunt. Rep. Reid Ribble (R), who represents the area around Green Bay and is retiring this year, was the first member of Congress to say that he could not support Trump even if he became the Republican 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 grownup, not a 3-year-old in the White House.”
Rep. Glenn Grothman (R), a conservative from the more moderate Fox Valley, is just one of two Midwestern congressmen to endorse Cruz and has been just as critical about Trump.
“If your 8-year-old child behaved that way, you'd wonder if there was something wrong with them,” Grothman told Sykes when he made the endorsement. "I mean, is he going to call members of Congress losers? Or belittle them? Some people can put up with that and have thick skins. Some people can't.”
Cruz may have Wisconsin to himself through Friday, when he makes three stops in Grothman’s and Ribble’s districts. But if he has momentum, it may be better described as anti-Trump than as pro-Cruz. The Texan has a bristly relationship with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), 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. In 2012, exit polls found that just 11 percent of Republican primary voters were Democrats and 30 percent were independents. Kasich’s town hall was studded with swing voters, several of whom thanked him for offering an alternative to Cruz.
“I could never vote for Cruz,” explained Amy Kruchten, 37, who drove to the Kasich event from Madison. “He’s part of the problem we have now, where everyone’s an extremist and nothing gets done.”
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 had supported Rubio “because Marco presented probably the broadest appeal and probably gave us the best chance to expand the base.” But like many Republicans here, he saw Walker’s Republican Party as a model for the country. A nominee Trump, or President Trump, would wreck that model.
“Cruz is going to win Wisconsin,” Steineke said. “Whoever wins Wisconsin is likely to be the nominee.”