Texas Sen. Ted Cruz decisively won Wisconsin's Republican primary Tuesday, dealing a setback to national front-runner Donald Trump in a state where the brash billionaire had received a cold reception.
Cruz's victory marks "a significant turn in the contest," according to John Coleman, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts and former chairman of the UW-Madison political science department.
"It is by no means assured that (Trump) will get a majority going into Cleveland," Coleman said. "A Cruz win tonight makes that all the more clear."
Cruz, speaking in Milwaukee, said the victory signified a unification of the party around his candidacy and a blueprint for defeating Trump either before or at the Republican National Convention in July.
"Tonight is a turning point. It is a rallying cry. It is a call from the hard-working men and women of Wisconsin to the people of America: We have a choice — a real choice," Cruz said. "Tonight Wisconsin has lit a candle guiding the way forward."
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who campaigned for third-place finisher Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said it was premature to say that Cruz's Wisconsin victory was a sign of party unity.
"I’ve never seen a more bitterly fought campaign on all sides. It was a mean campaign," Thompson said. "The campaign was set up in order to stop one candidate. It’s going to be hard for awhile to put the pieces together."
Cruz's statewide victory assured him 18 of the state's 42 delegates. The state GOP also assigns three delegates per congressional district. Cruz won five districts and Trump won one, the 7th Congressional District in the far northern part of the state. Two districts, including Madison's 2nd congressional district, were too close to call as of midnight.
Cruz has showed the most strength in southeastern Wisconsin where conservative talk radio hosts have lambasted Trump for several months. He also benefited from anti-Trump groups that spent millions of dollars on attack ads in the state.
Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out of the presidential race in September, endorsed Cruz a week before the primary and campaigned with him over the weekend. He also introduced him Tuesday night. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Jim Steineke also backed Cruz after previously supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said the embrace of Cruz by the state party establishment was critical for his victory. The state's more congenial political culture also didn't help Trump, who flogged Walker's record in Wisconsin during his first campaign rally in Janesville.
"It’s probably a lesson for Trump himself," Burden said. "Coming into a state and taking on the most popular leaders is not the way to win."
After his defeat, Trump's campaign didn't let up on the anti-Walker rhetoric, sending out a statement saying he "withstood the onslaught of the establishment yet again."
"We have total confidence that Mr. Trump will go on to win in New York, where he holds a substantial lead in all the polls, and beyond," the Trump campaign statement said.
Cruz was expected to win Wisconsin based on a number of polls released over the past week, though Trump had the most most support in the Marquette Law School Poll as recently as February. That was before Rubio and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson dropped out of the race.
"Name ID had a lot to do with the February numbers, but when people had to hear what the candidates had to say, most of them really figured out that there is no depth to what (Trump) is saying," said Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, state chairman for the Cruz campaign. "(Trump) is not a conservative and he’s not a Republican and he doesn’t have a plan to move this country forward."
Wisconsin's primary date was an oasis in the national primary calendar, drawing extra attention to the Badger State for the past two weeks. All three Republican candidates made multiple stops around the state.
Trump made a last-ditch push in the state over weekend, changing his schedule to campaign in the state along with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. He even predicted a big victory.
But the effort proved to be too little, too late. Trump also had a tumultuous two weeks leading up to the vote as he tweeted an unflattering photo of Cruz's wife, tripped over his own controversial statements on abortion and his campaign manager was charged with misdemeanor battery in an altercation with a reporter. At his Janesville rally a 15-year-old girl was pepper-sprayed by a Trump supporter.
According to a CNN exit poll, one in three Republican voters identified themselves as independents, compared with one in four Democratic voters, who helped Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders defeat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
An ABC News exit poll found half of GOP voters say the candidate with the most votes in the primary should be the nominee, whereas four in 10 say it should be a contested convention. Trump is on track to have the most delegates heading into the convention, but he might fall short of 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Cruz and Kasich are hoping for a contested convention as they are mathematically unable to win an outright majority before then.
The ABC exit poll also found six in 10 voters were "excited" or "optimistic" about Cruz becoming president, while a little more than four in 10 felt the same about Trump. Kasich fell in between.
The poll also found more than half of exit poll respondents said Trump has run the most unfair campaign, compared with a quarter who said Cruz and one in 10 who said Kasich.
An Associated Press exit poll found more excitement and fear about a Trump presidency among Republicans. About a quarter said they were excited about Trump, compared with less than 15 percent who said the same for Cruz or Kasich. Also, nearly 4 in 10 said they're scared about a Trump presidency, compared with 1 in 10 who said the same about the other two.