Wisconsin primary voters are uniquely positioned Tuesday to either halt Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s momentum or hamper Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s prospects of catching up — especially with the results left to resonate during the two-week gap before the next GOP contest in New York.
Trump is polling behind Cruz in the Badger State, where 42 delegates are at stake in an open primary. The real estate magnate has several forces vying against him, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who last week endorsed Cruz.
The state is also shaping up to be a battleground for the Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is slightly ahead of front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent poll. They are competing for 96 delegates.
Wisconsin is Tuesday’s only primary.
“It’s just this island of an event, sitting by itself, and it has such symbolic value,” said Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor.
Mark Graul, a Republican consultant based in Madison and Green Bay, said Cruz would be significantly boosted by a win in a state with demographics that usually go for Trump — “a lot of blue-collar workers, a lot of rural areas.”
Influential voices in Wisconsin may be more anti-Trump than they are pro-Cruz.
Conservative talk-radio hosts have flooded the airwaves with criticism of Trump. Milwaukee personality Charlie Sykes last week accused the front-running Republican during an interview of acting like a “12-year-old bully on a playground, not someone who wants the office held by Abraham Lincoln.”
Two political action committees — Our Principles PAC and the Club for Growth — sank $1.7 million into ad buys to further hammer voters with messages opposing Trump.
And Burden said Walker’s backing of Cruz could inspire voters who supported former candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to fall in line.
Trump is trailing Cruz 30 percent to 40 percent in the state, according to a Marquette Law School poll released last week. A CBS News poll released Sunday had Cruz up by 6 percentage points.
“That in part reflects a lack of support among the political establishment here,” said Charles Franklin, a Marquette professor of law and public policy.
In addition to Walker, Wisconsin is home to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.
GOP long-shot candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich has 21 percent support in the poll. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson helped Kasich’s case last week by saying a vote for Cruz equates to a vote for Clinton.
The Marquette poll shows Sanders with a 4-percentage-point edge over Clinton. A CBS News poll released Sunday had him up by 2 percentage points. The Democratic candidates have essentially split the Midwestern contests thus far, but Clinton has a substantial delegate lead overall.
The Wisconsin GOP primary is winner-takes-most, with delegates awarded based on state and congressional district winners.
Trump is still hundreds of pledged delegates short of the 1,237 he needs to secure the nomination.
If he loses in Wisconsin, he would have to take the winner-takes-all primaries in Delaware, Nebraska, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota to help him avoid a battle for the nomination at the GOP national convention July in Cleveland.