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Wisconsin Emerges as Potential "Anti-Trump Firewall" for Cruz

Voters head to the polls Tuesday in Arizona and Utah, but Ted Cruz's presidential campaign see the next major nominating contest — the April 5th primary in Wisconsin — as a critical moment for anti-Trump forces.

Ted Cruz talks with a man about his plan for health insurance during a stop at South Hardin Middle School in Hamlin, Iowa on Jan. 30, 2016.

Voters head to the polls Tuesday in Arizona and Utah, but Ted Cruz's presidential campaign is already setting its sights on the next major nominating contest in a Republican race that is increasingly centering on how to stop frontrunner Donald Trump. 

The April 5 primary in Wisconsin is shaping up to be a critical moment for anti-Trump forces, who see it as a potential last stand to slow Trump's momentum before the race turns to the Northeast, where the New York billionaire is expected to have something of a home-field advantage. Aware of the stakes in Wisconsin, which offers 42 delegates, Cruz's campaign has started to pour resources into the state in hopes of gaining a foothold before the GOP field's full attention shifts there after Tuesday. 

"They're really ramping up," Duey Stroebel, a Wisconsin state senator who leads Cruz's efforts there, said, noting Trump continues to poll poorly in the state's conservative strongholds. "Trump's got a heap of trouble here." 

Cruz will make his first campaign trip to Wisconsin on Wednesday evening, when he is scheduled to speak at a conference in Pewaukee organized by Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes. Cruz is set to campaign in the state through Friday, with additional stops planned in Dane, Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay. Cruz's wife, Heidi, is scheduled to make three stops across the state Wednesday and is expected to continue stumping there Thursday.


Cruz's campaign also plans to start TV advertising in the state Wednesday


Stroebel said the campaign opened at least four offices in the state Monday and is sending a "pretty strong contingent of manpower" to keep them running. The campaign also has a county chair in just about all of Wisconsin's 72 counties. 

In the next several days, the campaign is set to open a "Camp Cruz" volunteer headquarters in the Milwaukee area, using a model of supporter engagement it deployed in other states where it campaigned hard. Not the least of those states was Iowa, where Cruz's superior ground game was credited for his win in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

"Camp Cruz was absolutely critical to our stunning victory in Iowa, and the volunteers who travel to Wisconsin to join this effort will play an integral role in writing history by helping to elect our next President of the United States," Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe wrote in an email to supporters Tuesday.

In an internal memo last week, Cruz's campaign said it was "in a strong position" to prevail in Wisconsin, citing internal polling and Wisconsin's proximity to other states Cruz has won. Wisconsin is bordered by four other states that have already voted, Iowa being the only one Cruz has carried.

Complicating Cruz's prospects in Wisconsin is its open primary system, meaning voters are not required to register as Republicans to participate in the election. Aside from Cruz's home state, Trump has consistently beaten Cruz in such settings, and the Texas senator's campaign has staked his path forward on closing the delegate gap with Trump in closed primaries. 

Brandon Scholz, a veteran Republican operative based in Madison, called Wisconsin an "anti-Trump firewall" but expressed doubt Cruz could overcome the billionaire, who had a 10-point lead in a recent poll. That survey, however, included U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the race a week ago after losing his home state of Florida.

"I don’t think Wisconsin is as hardcore of a conservative state that Cruz needs," Scholz said, noting Cruz has struggled to beat Trump in friendlier territory. "I just don’t see what Cruz could do to hit the accelerator to make it happen."

On Monday, Cruz landed two major endorsements in Wisconsin, starting with that of Sykes, an outspoken Trump critic and influential figure in the world of Wisconsin conservative talk radio. Then Cruz won the support of Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, a former Rubio backer who, like Sykes, concluded Cruz was the GOP's best bet against Trump.

One endorsement that could have a significant impact before April 5 is that of Gov. Scott Walker, whom Cruz wasted no time courting once Walker dropped out of the race in September. Walker has not said whether he plans to offer an endorsement before the Wisconsin primary, but as he bowed out of the race, he called for a "positive, conservative alternative" to Trump.

Cruz is hoping to consolidate the anti-Trump vote, but he will likely encounter an obstacle in Wisconsin: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the only other remaining GOP candidate in the race. Kasich is already scheduled to hold a town hall Wednesday afternoon in the Milwaukee area, and his campaign is looking to recruit volunteers from his home state to make the trip west. 

"I think it's a tossup in Wisconsin," said Jack Voight, the former state treasurer who backed Kasich after Rubio ended his campaign. "I think the Rubio support could be divided between Cruz and Kasich." 

Outside groups are also likely to play a role in shaping the outcome on April 5 in Wisconsin. Club for Growth, one of the top-spending anti-Trump outfits, has "every intention of participating," spokesman Doug Sachtleben said Tuesday. Keep the Promise I, perhaps the most active super PAC backing Cruz, is "certainly looking into" competing in Wisconsin, spokeswoman Kristina Hernandez said Monday.

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Politics 2016 elections Ted Cruz