On Friday, after the May issue of Texas Monthly was shipped off to the printers, those of us in the office enjoyed the relative calm that comes to a magazine in the immediate aftermath of a print deadline. I was chatting with our editor-in-chief, Brian Sweany, about the week’s various developments, and a question occurred to me: was Ted Cruz’s victory in the Wisconsin primary, I wondered, a really big deal?
Based on the incredulous expression that flitted across the boss’s face, this was an alarmingly obtuse question. In my defense, though, I seem to have woken up one morning last year in some sort of interminable episode of the Twilight Zone in which the Republican party is having two concurrent presidential primaries—the one I’ve been covering for Texas Monthly, and the one I hear people talking about whenever I wander past a television, or read a national newspaper. My coverage of the primary itself, I think, has been competent enough. But predicting the conventional wisdom? That’s proven to be a lost cause.
This divergence, which I’ve written about at various points here at Texas Monthly, isn’t the first one I’ve encountered as a political journalist based in Texas. And, for what it’s worth, in my experiences, such divergences aren’t inherently suspicious. In some cases they may reflect ideological preferences, unwarranted assumptions or craven motives on the parts of the various journalists involved. I’m not naive about that or insensitive to the fact that occasionally, in retrospect, I realize my perspective was skewed by some quirk or bias I wasn’t consciously attuned to at the time. With that said, some of the factors that contribute to various distortions are anodyne enough in themselves. An example of the latter would be geography: Since the vast majority of the nation’s political press is based in New York or Washington, DC, those of us scattered across the rest of the country will, in my experience, sometimes end up with a heterodox perspective simply because our vantage point is unusual.
But this particular divergence is an unsettling and unusually consequential one, for the reasons I laid out in a column for the forthcoming issue of the National Review. As fate would have it, the GOP’s chances of stopping Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination are now wholly contingent on Cruz, a candidate who is, himself, held in great suspicion by many of the journalists covering him. As regular readers can probably tell from my coverage of the primary thus far, I’ve been troubled by how the latter’s campaign has been assessed thus far. I hope it’s also clear that my concerns on that front are specific to the circumstances at hand. It’s not my goal to convert people to Cruz’s cause, and it’s certainly not my job. But regardless of how malformed his character may be, he’s the only reason Trump is not the presumptive nominee already. And since I see Trump as uniquely appalling, I’m relieved that Cruz’s many critics have come up short in their various efforts to crush his campaign. Cruz may be genuinely contemptible. For all we know he may actually be the Zodiac Killer, having struck a deal with the devil eight hundred years ago in a dark night in a tavern in Romania, in which he sold his soul in exchange for the power to manipulate linear time, so that he could be both a serial killer in the sixties and a 45-year-old candidate for the presidency in 2016. He still wouldn’t be worse than Trump.
Anyway, the Wisconsin primary. My question to Sweany was sincere, but I suppose it would have been better phrased as follows: did Cruz’s victory in Wisconsin seem to have spurred the light-bulb moment I’ve been fretfully hoping for since February? To be clear, I was happy to see Wisconsin resist Trump; I just wasn’t surprised. It’s a wonderful state, full of people who were bound to reject Trump’s efforts to debase their party and our country, just as Minnesota voters did back on March 1. Nor was I shocked by Cruz’s success. It was an impressive performance; he won 48 percent of the vote in a big state with an open primary, beating Trump by a 13-point margin. But it wasn’t the first such success Cruz had posted. More than a month previously, he won 44 percent of the vote in a big state with an open primary, beating Trump by a 17-point margin. Would his victory in Wisconsin, which is not his home state, make the same impression on observers that his victory in Texas should have? I was honestly wondering.
At this point, frankly, I’m not sure the answer matters. Cruz is demonstrably determined to persevere in this race, regardless of whether the GOP establishment or national media elite approve of his desire to do so. But it’s possible, I suppose, for two reasons. First, Cruz’s margin of victory in Wisconsin may have been reassuring for those Republicans who have been fretfully wondering whether the controversial senator can actually unite the party behind his candidacy; if not for John Kasich, who netted 14 percent, he would presumably have won the majority of the votes cast. Second, the Wisconsin primary was consequential. Trump won six of the state’s delegates, for which he owes Kasich a thank-you note. But Cruz won 36. His victory in Wisconsin, in other words, dealt a blow to Trump’s ability to rack up 1,237 delegates before the RNC begins.
And in light of the results from North Dakota and Colorado, the other two states that weighed in this week, perhaps we should put the case more strongly than that. In July, we might look back over the primary season and say that in the GOP’s grueling battle against the Trumpian menace, it was the the great state of Wisconsin that provided the knockout blow. Both North Dakota and Colorado would likely have gone for Cruz, had the question been put directly to Republican voters. But neither state, as it happens, holds a traditional primary or caucus. Instead, their delegates are elected by their peers in the party itself, and as a result, they served as timely test cases for Cruz and Trump’s respective skill at precisely the kind of retail politics likely to prove crucial in Cleveland.
North Dakota’s delegates to the national convention are elected at the state convention, which was held last weekend, and they are, officially, unbound—free to vote for the candidate of their choosing, on the first ballot, at the RNC. And 18 of the 26 delegates who will represent North Dakota this year have already made it known that they plan to support Cruz. Colorado, similarly, bypasses a direct vote in lieu of a more formal delegate selection process, although its delegates are pledged. The 37 members of its delegation to the RNC will include three state leaders, and 34 elected delegates—13 from the state convention and three from each of the state’s seven congressional districts. By the time the state’s convention concluded, on Saturday, Cruz had won them all.
Those results are a testament to the efficacy of Cruz’s campaign operation. And they’re very, very ominous for Trump and his supporters. Thanks to Wisconsin, Trump’s chances of winning on the first ballot have narrowed significantly. And thanks to North Dakota and Colorado, it should be easy enough to predict what will happen on the second ballot. As Scott Walker predicted, after Republicans in his state resoundingly seconded his endorsement of Cruz, there may not even be a need for a third.