WAUKESHA, Wis. — Ted Cruz expects to win here Tuesday. Will it matter?
That’s the question heading into Election Day in the Badger State — not whether Cruz can prevail but whether his anticipated victory will change the trajectory of the presidential race as much as he hopes it will.
Barnstorming the state over the past few days, the Texas senator has spoken dramatically of Wisconsin's potential to reset the race by delivering a stinging loss to frontrunner Donald Trump. Yet Cruz's critics, and even some of his supporters, acknowledge a victory may not be all it's cracked up to be, with only 42 delegates up for grabs and the race shifting to seemingly unfriendly terrain two weeks from now.
Cruz, more confident than usual, spent Monday dismissing the idea that any momentum gained from winning Wisconsin would be short-lived. He repeatedly pointed to recent delegate hauls in Utah, North Dakota and Colorado, arguing a victory in the Badger State would be not a flash in the pan but just the latest in a sequence.
“If we have a good night tomorrow, that will be four states in a row where Donald Trump has gotten whooped, and that starts to become a pretty clear national trend,” Cruz told reporters Monday afternoon in Kenosha.
Asked if that trend translates to the upcoming contests in the Northeast where Trump is favored, Cruz offered a sunny outlook.
“I certainly hope so," he said. "We're going to campaign hard and try to earn delegates in every state we can, and I will say the demographics of a New York, the demographics of a Pennsylvania, share a lot in common with the demographics of a state like Wisconsin."
Cruz’s rivals have been happy to raise the stakes for Cruz in Wisconsin, characterizing the upcoming contests as places where the Texas senator is dead on arrival. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said Cruz is “out of runway” after Tuesday, and Trump’s campaign has labeled the Wisconsin “make or break” for the Texas senator. “Lose and he drops out,” Trump adviser Ed Brookover tweeted last week.
Cruz offered his own expectations management throughout Monday, recalling how only a couple of weeks ago Wisconsin was being branded as the “perfect state” for Trump — his “sweet spot” given its working-class electorate. Cruz and his aides were quick to draw attention to Trump’s prediction Monday morning he would win big in the state, a prediction that will no doubt come up again if Cruz notches a win Tuesday.
On Monday evening, Cruz’s campaign was working to show momentum in Wisconsin and across the country. It rolled out new endorsements from 15 state lawmakers in the Badger State, and it named 100 county chairs across all 72 counties in Wisconsin. The campaign also issued a memo arguing Cruz is faring well in the Badger State not because Trump is “collapsing” but because the billionaire’s level of support remains the same and Cruz’s is growing.
Cruz was in a jovial mood throughout Monday, exuding confidence in his prospects Tuesday while reveling in an afternoon of retail campaigning. He took reporters on a half-hour tour of a cheese shop in Kenosha, fielding a generous helping of questions as he insisted his press corps sample the local fare — though he drew the line when offered multiple opportunities to try on a cheesehead hat for the roughly dozen cameras following him.
“There is an ironclad rule of politics: No funny hats,” Cruz ultimately said, invoking Michael Dukakis’ famously botched decision to sport a military helmet in the 1988 presidential race.
At his next stop, an Italian market in Milwaukee, Cruz paused on his way out to respond to a reporter’s joke at the intersection of foreign policy and Wisconsin delicacies. “Yes, we need to arm the cheese curds,” Cruz said, suggesting the United States could dissuade the Islamic State from its terroristic ways by treating them to the Badger State export.
At a Monday-evening rally in Waukesha, Cruz even looked forward to the general election, noting how Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton sent a fundraising email earlier in the day that warned she could lose Wisconsin to primary rival Bernie Sanders.
“You know what, Hillary? You’re going to,” Cruz said, pausing for dramatic effect, “in November.”
The rally, in some ways, brought full circle the factors that have been key to Cruz’s success in the Badger State. It was held in the seat of Waukesha County, part of three reliably Republican counties that surround Milwaukee and that could fuel a decisive win by Cruz on Tuesday.
Gov. Scott Walker, who endorsed Cruz last week, introduced the senator at the same venue where he declared victory in a recall election four years earlier, the result of a battle with public-employee unions Walker said was not unlike the current race. The event also showcased Cruz's support in the influential world of Wisconsin talk radio, which has largely organized itself against Trump.
"Wisconsin has to be the firewall. We have to be the firewall of common-sense rationality in this campaign," radio host Charlie Sykes said before leading the crowd in a chant. "What is Wisconsin going to say to Donald Trump on April 5, 2016? 'You're fired!'"
As the rally let out, Cruz supporter David Weigand acknowledged the senator’s path to the nomination does not get any easier after Tuesday. But he suggested a decisive win in Wisconsin certainly would not hurt.
“I think Wisconsin is pivotal,” Weigand said, describing Tuesday as effectively the start of the “second half of the primary season.”
“I think Wisconsin is going to set the tone for the rest of the states who are voting in the next month or two,” he said.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday in Wisconsin.