ASHWAUBENON, Wis. — The similarities between neighboring Iowa and Wisconsin were supposed to be Scott Walker’s secret weapon in his 2016 campaign. Now they are proving to be Ted Cruz’s.
As Cruz seeks a watershed victory over Donald Trump in Wisconsin on Tuesday to reset the Republican race, on the heels of their scramble for delegates in North Dakota over the weekend, the Texas senator is running the same Iowa playbook that dealt Trump his worst loss of the cycle.
Just as in Iowa, Cruz arrived in Wisconsin before Trump, has worked it harder and stayed longer. He’s delivered speeches at rallies across the state, shaken hands at a sandwich shop, fought for votes at a fish fry and promised to bring back American jobs at a factory in Oshkosh.
Cruz has opened a “Camp Cruz” to provide free housing for volunteers who make the trek to the voter-rich Milwaukee region, as he did in Des Moines; he has again slammed Trump for refusing to debate him; and he has tried to fend off a third candidate (then Marco Rubio, now John Kasich) from serving as a spoiler.
The parallels run deeper. Cruz has the backing of one of the state’s leading right-wing talk radio hosts (Charlie Sykes in Wisconsin, Steve Deace in Iowa), one of the state’s leading social conservative groups (Wisconsin Family Action PAC now, The Family Leader in Iowa) and another extensive and deeply organized grass-roots network fueled by county chairs blanketing the state and a long list of supportive faith leaders. He spent Saturday night here in Ashwaubenon, screening a Christian film — just as he did in West Des Moines last fall.
“I am hoping for a similar outcome,” Iowa Rep. Steve King said with a laugh. King campaigned across Iowa with Cruz and now serves as his national campaign co-chairman.
Polls show Cruz in a stronger position in Wisconsin than they ever did in Iowa, where he consistently trailed Trump in the lead-up to the caucuses. Two polls in the final week have Cruz opening as much as a 10-point lead over Trump. A margin that wide on Election Day would likely deliver nearly all of Wisconsin’s coveted 42 delegates to Cruz.
In fact, the biggest differences between Iowa and Wisconsin appear only to benefit Cruz. Then, he was under fire from the political establishment — from the popular Republican governor there (Terry Branstad) to national leaders like Bob Dole. Now, Cruz has the backing of Wisconsin’s popular governor, former rival Scott Walker appears in one of his closing TV ads, as well as support from key figures in the state Legislature, including the majority leader and the Assembly speaker, both of whom previously supported Rubio. National leaders like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are also rallying behind him.
As he took the stage at a fish fry dinner in Milwaukee on Friday night, Cruz hugged Walker after the governor warmly introduced him as a “constitutional conservative” who could shake up Washington and win in November.
“I am so humbled, so honored to be standing here with Gov. Walker,” Cruz said. “Scott, thank you for your friendship.”
The moment was a jarring contrast with the final weeks before Iowa, when Branstad openly called for Cruz’s defeat over his commitment to phasing out federal ethanol subsidies. This time around, it’s Trump whom the political establishment detests. Local talk-radio hosts have pilloried the front-runner for denigrating Walker when he was still in the race and in recent days.
“When Donald Trump comes into Wisconsin, knows nothing about our state, trashes all the work we’ve done, trashes our governor, trashes our party, we take it personally,” said Vicki McKenna, another prominent conservative radio host. “It’s just spectacularly stupid.”
Cruz, on the other hand, has taken full advantage of the two weeks leading into Wisconsin that are uninterrupted by any other primary or caucus, McKenna said.
“He’s actually got people here in Wisconsin advising his campaign; he’s made an effort to understand even district to district, county to county,” she said.
Indeed, just as he did before the Iowa caucus, Cruz has gone all-in in Wisconsin: Instead of downing bacon and snacks on sticks at the Iowa State Fair, he indulged in a triple jalapeño cheeseburger at a classic burgers-and-bloody marys joint in Milwaukee, telling the crowd how much he loved cheese. A former Green Bay Packers player, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, has been touted as a top endorsement.
The players and the local touches are different, but the broader, systematic approach to connecting with voters across the state is the same.
“He’s going to have a tremendous force both on doors and on phones and driving out folks to vote on April 5,” said state Rep. Dave Craig, one of Cruz’s Wisconsin co-chairs. “People like the face-to-face conversations with candidates and their surrogates, and our campaign’s going to be out in full force.”
That was the case in the final days before the primary: Walker and Carly Fiorina spent days crossing the state stumping for Cruz. Walker’s wife, Tonette, joined Cruz’s wife, Heidi, for a Saturday sprint, hitting three stops along with Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
It was a much larger entourage of national figures than the one Cruz had in Iowa, when King and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry rolled around the state in a bus together ahead of the caucuses.
Wisconsin is also less evangelical and more blue collar than Iowa is, and Cruz has adjusted his stump speech accordingly, promising at a factory in Oshkosh to bring back American jobs. The candidate rarely prayed on the stump, as he had in Iowa, and placed more emphasis on economic and security issues.
But, as in Iowa and elsewhere in the country, the campaign is still focused on mobilizing Christian conservatives. Cruz’s father, Pastor Rafael Cruz, played an instrumental role in bringing pastors on board in Iowa, and he is again reaching out to them in Wisconsin. He spent Saturday at Brett Favre’s Steakhouse in Green Bay, at a pastors- and clergy-focused breakfast.
On Friday, Cruz’s team unveiled a list of 50 Wisconsin faith leaders supporting his campaign — an effort that began, the campaign noted, in Iowa.
“I know the countryside pretty well in northeast Iowa and rural Wisconsin … match up pretty well,” King, the congressman, said. “Their values are much the same, their religion are much the same, they’re good family people.”
“That all plays very well in Ted Cruz’s favor,” he said.
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