The next big battle for Republican votes: Wisconsin

Wisconsin voters are deeply divided over Donald Trump, giving #NeverTrumps a chance in the southern counties that helped nominate John McCain and Mitt Romney. 

Mark Kauzlarich/ Reuters
Attendees perform the pledge of allegiance at a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz at Lakeside Plastics in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on March 25. The state's GOP primary will take place on April 5.

Wisconsin is emerging as the next big test of Republican unity.

Wisconsin Republicans' April 5 primary "will play a critical role continuing to unify Republicans behind our campaign," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a rally in Oshkosh on Friday, part of a weekend push to reach middle- and working-class voters before frontrunner Donald Trump's Tuesday arrival. "The only way to beat Donald Trump is with unity." 

For the GOP's three remaining candidates, Mr. Trump, Sen. Cruz, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin's 42 delegates are critical to the keep-away strategies all three are counting on. Cruz and Gov. Kasich need to stop Trump's march towards 1,237 delegate votes to force a brokered convention, while Trump needs to keep their numbers far away from his current lead. The businessman holds 739, compared to Cruz's 465 and Kasich's 143. 

The good news for Cruz and Kasich: Wisconsonites are anything but unified about Trump, and state history suggests a "Never Trump" win. But the 2016 campaign hasn't been known for following precedent.

"Ted Cruz has a real opportunity to win the state, in a way that would be pretty resounding," Republican strategist Mark Graul told the Associated Press. Although Wisconsin's primary delegates are awarded proportionally, not winner-take-all, a strong showing for Cruz or Kasich would intensify the challenges facing Trump as he tries to secure a majority of delegates before July.

Southern Wisconsin, the central Fox River Valley, and suburban hubs like Madison's are the "holy grail" of state GOP politics, Keith Gilkes, a former advisor for Gov. Scott Walker, told the AP. It's the region that helped hand nomination victories to Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary and John McCain in 2008, as well as Governor Walker's own win in 2010. 

It's a mix of middle-class suburbia and blue-collar workers, the kinds of voters who in other states have helped vault Trump from a presidential long shot to rule-breaking frontrunner. Here, however, they may be immune to his charm. In three of the center-south's main counties, just 25 percent have a favorable opinion of Trump, according to Marquette University polls. In northern Wisconsin, however, 53 percent do.

"He is drawing support in outstate Wisconsin from people who aren’t devout Republicans, but people who are feeling this economic stress," University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine Cramer told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saying that many northern voters feel neglected by the government. "If you ask them which political party best represents you, they’d say neither...Trump is clearly someone [they think] is going to come in and shake things up."

For those voters, Trump's lack of in-state political support may be a non-issue, or even an asset. Walker has hinted that he will endorse Cruz in the coming week. Dropping his own presidential bid last September, he told supporters that a Trump alternative was "fundamentally important to the future of our party, and, more important, the future of the country."

Wisconsin is also home to popular conservative radio hosts who oppose Trump, as well House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has strongly criticized his candidacy without naming him, and third-term congressman Reid Ribble, one of the few Republican leaders to say they will not support Trump were he to win the nomination. 

But polls still predict a close race, with Cruz at 36 percent and Trump between 31 and 35 percent. Kasich lags with between 19 and 21 percent. 

All three are scheduled to appear at a CNN town hall event broadcast from Milwaukee's Riverside Theater on Tuesday night, where, if Cruz's weekend campaigning is an indication, he'll argue that Trump's populist economic policies won't actually help working-class supporters.

"People are struggling already, and you want to jack up the cost of living by 45 percent?" he asked a crowd in Oshkosh, referring to Trump's wish for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. 

He also empathized with "single moms who are working two and three part-time jobs" in Janesville, home of Paul Ryan, where a General Motors plant closing in 2009 lost hundreds of jobs. Trump is scheduled to speak in Janesville on Tuesday. 

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