For the next two weeks, the escalating battle between front-runner Donald Trump and Ted Cruz will be waged in the land of Scott Walker and the model state for the GOP march on the once-Democratic heartland.
The winner-take-all contest will be a crucial test for both Trump and Cruz. The strength and durability of Trump’s populist appeal in the industrial Midwest, the very turf Trump hopes to wrest from reliably-Democrat status in the General Election, will be on the line.
While for Cruz, Wisconsin will be the Texas senator’s chance to prove he can win open primary contests against Trump and cement the wide-open status of the GOP race.
Seven of Cruz’s eight wins have been in closed primary or caucus contests — those where only registered Republicans can cast ballots. Cruz has notched a dismal one for 13 record in the open contests where non-GOP voters are allowed to participate.
Those stats may normally auger a poor showing for Cruz in the open-contest Wisconsin, but the most recent poll of registered voters in Wisconsin by Marquette University showed Trump with more solidified negatives than Cruz. Trump culled a net 42.3 percent unfavorable rating from the surveyed Wisconsin voters, compared to a much more modest 18.6 underwater slant against Cruz.
The Marquette poll also showed Cruz performing much stronger than Trump in a hypothetical general election match-up against Hillary Clinton, another possible indication that it’s Cruz, not Trump who has the stronger appeal to Wisconsin independent and soft Democrat voters. The survey found Cruz exactly tied with Clinton at 43.5 percent apiece, while Clinton led Trump by double digits.
Cruz has certainly performed strongly in the states surrounding Wisconsin. The Texas senator won Iowa, beat Trump in Minnesota and notched strong second-place showings in Illinois and Michigan.
Analysis of the border counties in states surrounding Wisconsin finds Trump with a slight advantage over Cruz in straight votes cast, but facing a mammoth and uncertain non-Trump vote, which may break heavily against the current GOP front-runner. Out of 220,000 votes cast in the Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota counties bordering Wisconsin, Trump led Cruz 37 to 29 percent, but other candidates — all but Kasich now gone from the race — split another 34 percent of the remaining vote.
[lz_table title=”GOP Results in Counties Surrounding Wisconsin” note=”*Results for Washington and Dakota Counties in Minnesota were unavailable”]Iowa Counties,Trump,Cruz,Other
|Total, 37%, 29%, 34%
Cruz could be strong in Wisconsin if he can combine his existing supporters with a majority of that lingering bloc of GOP voters that have been hesitant to embrace Trump. The Texas senator will get a sizable boost in that effort from outside groups opposing Trump, like Club for Growth. The Super PAC has pledged as much as $2 million towards bashing Trump in the looming Wisconsin battle.
The wild-card figure in the Wisconsin contest, and one likely to also boost Cruz if he wades into the fray, is Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker has been markedly mum on the GOP presidential contest since exiting the race himself after a dismal campaign, particularly compared with colleague also-ran governors like Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, all of whom have periodically weighed in to varying extents.
But when Walker put his own White House ambitions on hold, his thoughts on which candidate should not carry the GOP banner were no secret.
“I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner,” Walker said during his September 21 drop-out speech. “This is fundamentally important to the future of our party, and, more important, the future of the country.”
Walker and the Wisconsin GOP were the model of Republican resurgence in the industrial Midwest following a rise to power in 2010 and resilient victories in succeeding elections. GOP victories in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan made possible the passage of Right to Work legislation, breaking the grip of once-dominant labor unions on those states, and paving the path for a GOP populist-appeal candidate to bring all three into contention in 2016.
Walker, who once aspired to be that candidate himself, now has the opportunity to influence who it will be at a critical time in the contest.
Walker could steer Badgers towards Cruz and help keep the contest open, or reconcile with the front-runner, who has made the populist appeal to American workers the centerpiece of his candidacy, possibly opening a path to veep contention.
Walker could, of course, also back fellow midwestern Gov. John Kasich, but doing so would be a fool’s errand. Already long written off by most of the political world, Wisconsin would be Kasich’s last chance to have some justification for his candidacy if he had any real shot at momentum in the contest. Ohio and Wisconsin share many similar dynamics, as does neighboring Michigan, where Kasich performed well, albeit still coming in third place.
At best, Kasich may rob Cruz of a victory in Wisconsin by grabbing a large chunk of the non-Trump vote. Whether that happens or not, Wisconsin will confirm what everyone but Kasich himself already knows about the Ohio governor’s campaign — there is no convincing justification for it to continue.
With a two-week break until the Wisconsin contest and only two votes slated to be held for the next five weeks, the candidates will have ample time to blitz Wisconsin TV sets with ads and barnstorm the state with campaign rallies.
With no other contests slated before New York on April 15, the fight for Wisconsin, and the momentum a victory there would bring, will be intense.