WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Cruz handily won the Wisconsin primary on Tuesday night, dealing a symbolic and psychological blow to Donald Trump and increasing the odds that the Republican Party will go to its convention in July without a nominee for the first time in four decades.
Trump’s loss further narrows the likelihood he could claim the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination, casting an aura of uncertainty over a nominating contest marked by turmoil. It also demonstrates for one of the first times since the Iowa caucuses two months ago that Trump’s support in blue-collar states may be waning.
Wisconsin represented one of the last best opportunities for the anti-Trump forces to stymie his march toward the nomination, and their success keeps their hope alive that they can create a chaotic convention that could ultimately prevent Trump from becoming the GOP general election candidate.
The question now is whether the Wisconsin defeat is a temporary setback — Trump is already showing signs of reordering his campaign — or whether it marks the beginning of his long-predicted downfall.
The loss also triggers questions about whether the attacks on him, along with self-inflicted wounds by the free-wheeling candidate, have caught up with him. Wisconsin is heavy with the kind of working-class voters who have come out in droves for Trump in previous states. The state also has an open primary that allows independents to vote in the GOP primary, which Trump has benefited from in the past.
It was also a show of strength for Cruz, who lost similar states such as Michigan and Illinois to Trump. Trump had won six of the last eight contests, losing to Governor John Kasich in Kasich’s home state of Ohio, and losing Utah to Cruz.
The race was called about 30 minutes after polls closed. With 85 percent reporting, Cruz was ahead 49 percent to Trump’s 35 percent. Kasich was trailing far behind at 14 percent.
Cruz cast himself Tuesday as a unifying candidate, quoting John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill.
“Wisconsin has lit a candle guiding the way forward,” he told a cheering crowd in Milwaukee. “Tonight we once again have hope for the future.”
Wisconsin is a highly active political state with heavy voter participation. It is home to several nationally respected Republicans — House Speaker Paul Ryan, Governor Scott Walker, and RNC chairman Reince Priebus. Trump has clashed with Ryan and Walker, who initially ran for president but dropped out in September and endorsed Cruz.
The early exit polls showed that Wisconsin Republicans were less angry and less disenchanted with GOP leadership than voters in previous primary contests.
About a third of those who went to the polls said they were angry, according to exit polls released by CNN. When asked whether they felt betrayed by Republican politicians, 51 percent said yes, while 46 percent said no.
Trump did not deliver remarks on Tuesday night and instead issued a statement ridiculing “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” for the barrage of negative attack ads.
“Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet — he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump,” Trump’s campaign said in a statement after the results came in.
The calendar going forward is more favorable to Trump, and it will be a significant test for Cruz to build on his Wisconsin win. The next contest is April 19 in Trump’s native New York, where the brash billionaire built his brand. Cruz, who ridiculed Trump for having “New York values,” is expected to focus his time in upstate New York but on Wednesday is holding a “meet and greet” with voters in the Bronx.
A CBS News poll released over the weekend had Trump with 52 percent of voter support, followed by Cruz at 21 percent and Kasich at 20 percent in New York.
Voting a week after New York are a series of mid-Atlantic and Northeast states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island — where Trump would be poised to do well. He is currently leading in the polls in every state that has conducted a recent poll.
Trump is also turning his attention to California, planning a press conference there on Friday. California is the biggest prize of several states that vote on the last day of primary balloting June 7.
Cruz’s win in Wisconsin illustrated an ability to broaden beyond his evangelical base, which helped fuel his win in Iowa and in such states as Oklahoma and Kansas. In his speech, he attempted to unite the party.
“Tonight is a turning point. It is a rallying cry,” Cruz said at his victory party. “We’ve got the full spectrum of the Republican Party coming together and uniting behind this campaign.”
Heading into Tuesday’s election, Trump had won 47 percent of the delegates awarded so far and needs 55 percent of the remaining delegates, according to the Associated Press.
In the delegate count, Cruz trails badly — Trump had 737 delegates, compared with Cruz’s 475 — and even a resounding Wisconsin victory was expected to do little to change the high hurdles Cruz faces to win the nomination outright.
But he could prevent Trump from reaching the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, putting the party in a position of heading to its convention without a known nominee for the first time since 1976, when incumbent Gerald Ford held off Ronald Reagan on the first ballot.
Wisconsin awarded 18 delegates to the statewide winner, and three more to the winner of each of the eight congressional districts.
After winning two weeks ago in Arizona, Trump has kept a lighter schedule, conducting interviews but not doing many traditional campaign events. But that changed as his lead in Wisconsin evaporated and Cruz began gaining ground.
Over the past few days, Trump skipped his newborn grandson’s bris, instead holding a succession of rallies and retail campaign stops throughout Wisconsin.
“The last two weeks, Donald Trump has gotten his rear end whipped, over and over and over again,” Cruz said Monday.
Kasich, who so far has won only his home state of Ohio, trails far behind his rivals. With just 143 delegates, he has no mathematical shot at carrying the nomination outright.
Heading into Wisconsin, Trump had suffered one of the rockiest periods of his campaign.
His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with assaulting a reporter during a campaign event last month. Trump repeatedly defended Lewandowski and questioned the female reporter’s credibility.
Trump also said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that women should be punished for having an abortion, should the procedure be banned. He reversed course after several hours, but negative news coverage of the remarks continued for days.
He also mocked Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and retweeted a photo saying that his own wife was more attractive. For that move, Trump faced repeated criticism on Wisconsin’s influential conservative talk radio stations.
“I expect that from a 12-year-old bully on a playground. Not someone who wants the office held by Abraham Lincoln,” Charlie Sykes, a Milwaukee radio host, told Trump when the candidate called into the show.
Trump later called spreading the photo to his millions of followers “a mistake.”