WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, leading a seismic transformation of the modern Republican Party, leapt closer to securing its presidential nomination with a near sweep of Super Tuesday states, scoring strong wins across the conservative Deep South, in liberal parts of New England, and almost everywhere in between.
With states that hold a quarter of the US population voting, Trump won among almost every demographic, robbing his rivals of room to claim victory and putting him into a commanding position that has flabbergasted the party establishment.
Just after the polls closed, Trump was declared the winner in Massachusetts, winning support from working-class voters around the state. He also won Vermont.
"We have expanded the Republican Party," Trump said from Palm Beach, Fla. "I'm a unifier. I know people are going to find that hard to believe. But I am a unifier."
Senator Ted Cruz claimed his home state of Texas as well as Oklahoma, allowing Cruz to argue that he is the GOP's best alternative to Trump. Senator Marco Rubio, despite a flood of establishment endorsements and cash, notched his lone victory in the Minnesota caucus, helping Cruz prevent Trump from making a clean sweep of all 11 states that voted Tuesday.
All of the candidates immediately looked ahead to the next set of contests in March. Trump and Rubio — as well as Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton — were all in Florida Tuesday night. That state votes March 15.
Anger at Washington and a yearning for a leader to shake things up continued to fuel Trump's extraordinary popularity. Exit polls showed that Southern Republicans were more likely to say they were "angry" with the government. Voters in nearly all states said they wanted an outsider in the Oval Office.
Clinton, Trump pick up wins on Super Tuesday
Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders also picked up two wins each on Super Tuesday.
The Republican Party establishment has been flummoxed by Trump for months — with increasing alarm about his anti-immigrant and divisive rhetoric — but only recently has mobilized against him.
Top Republican congressional leaders Tuesday took a dramatic step to distance themselves from Trump, denouncing some of his comments when he declined over the weekend to immediately denounce the endorsement of David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
"If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Capitol Hill. "They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people's prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln."
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was equally forceful, saying, "Senate Republicans condemn David Duke, the KKK, and his racism."
"There has been a lot of talk in the last 24 hours about one of our presidential candidates and his seeming ambivalence about David Duke and the KKK, so let me make it perfectly clear," he said. "That is not the view of Republicans who have been elected to the United States Senate, and I condemn his views in the most forceful way."
The Republican leader found himself straddling a difficult line between trying to avoid lasting damage from his party but also not dismiss the candidate who is winning overwhelmingly in state after state.
"If I'm going to win all these states tonight," Trump said, "it's awfully hard to say this is not the person we want to lead the party."
Trump said he didn't know Ryan very well.
"I'm sure I'll get along with him," he said. "And if I don't? He'll have to pay a big price."
With 595 delegates at stake across 11 states — and record turnouts in many of them — Trump was in a position to take a dominant role in the nomination contest. Although the delegates Tuesday will be awarded proportionally, Trump is likely to win a large share of them.
"Maybe the establishment needs to get out, too," Trump said in an interview with Fox News Tuesday morning. "When you see what's going on. They've lost two elections in a row. Big ones. The last one with Mitt Romney should have been easy."
Trump also said Rubio should drop out of the race.
"I think he has to get out," Trump said. "He hasn't won anything, and Ted Cruz very rightly points out Marco has not won."
According to CNN exit polls, voters who described themselves as "angry" turned out in Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas, whereas Republicans in Northern states reported being "dissatisfied" with the government but not angry. Voters in nearly all states — with the exception of Texas and Vermont — said they were looking for an outsider candidate.
More Republican voters — 50 percent — supported a candidate from outside the establishment than someone with political experience — 40 percent — a sign that strongly favors Trump, according to MSNBC exit polls.
Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee had the highest number of voters who identified as "very conservative," while Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia had the smallest number of very conservative voters, according to MSNBC.
The last remaining pathway for more mainstream Republicans to stop Trump may be to deny him the 1,237 delegates needed to gain the nomination when the GOP holds its convention in July. Most states have a viability threshold that candidates have to pass before they can gain any delegates.
Marco Rubio speaks to supporters on Super Tuesday
Marco Rubio speaks to supporters on Super Tuesday
Rubio is hoping to stay viable in the race, hoping to pull out his home state of Florida on March 15. At that point, the states become winner-take-all, so it would be easier for candidates to quickly amass delegates and catch up to Trump.
"Just five days ago, we began to unmask the true nature of the front-runner so far in this race," Rubio told his supporters in Miami. "Five days ago, we began to explain to the American people that Donald Trump is a con artist. And in just five days, we are seeing the impact it's having all across the country.
"Two weeks from tonight, right here in Florida, we are going to send a message loud and clear," Rubio added. "We are going to send the message that the party of Lincoln and Reagan and the presidency of the United States will never be held by a con artist."
But Rubio's claims of relevance are growing thin, without much evidence to point toward. Cruz, who is as detested by the Republican establishment as Trump, argued Tuesday night that others need to "prayerfully consider" getting out of the race.
"So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump's path to the nomination remains more likely and that would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives, and for the nation," Cruz told supporters in Stafford, Texas. "Our campaign is the only campaign that has beaten, that can beat, and that will be Donald Trump."
Ohio Governor John Kasich has also vowed to stay in the race, hoping to compete for delegates in his home state of Ohio. But aside from a second-place showing in Vermont, he struggled to display any strength Tuesday.
Trump moved past the states voting on Tuesday, spending time in Ohio and Kentucky before ending up in Florida.
The results Tuesday cap a vicious battle over the past week as the rhetoric took a decidedly unpresidential turn. Rubio made fun of Trump's tan, his ties, and his small hands. Trump, in turn, mocked Rubio for sweating, for his smaller stature, and for his big ears.
Rubio also unloaded with new accusations about Trump's reliance on immigrant labor for his estate in Palm Beach, Fla. He and Cruz both released summaries of their tax returns and challenged Trump to do the same.
None of it seemed to have an effect.
The Republican candidates are scheduled to gather Thursday night in Detroit for their next debate, one of the last remaining opportunities to change the course of the campaign.
Ben Carson, who has badly trailed in the race, called on his Republican rivals to gather for a private meeting before the next debate.
"The American People deserve so much more from the candidates who are seeking the most powerful position in the free world, and I share their concern that this race has taken a turn for the worse, to the point of embarrassment on the world stage," Carson said in a statement Tuesday.
"A house divided cannot stand, and it is imperative the Republican Party exhibit unity by the candidates coming together with a pledge to talk about the many serious problems facing our country, instead of personally attacking each other."
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.