In just the last week, Donald Trump boasted about the size of his penis in a presidential debate and refused on national television to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan (he did however later disavow the group). After months of nothing mattering, something may finally have mattered.
Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who Republican elites are reluctantly eying as their last hope to stop Trump, trounced the reality TV star in two of the four GOP contests on Saturday night, in Kansas and Maine. Trump dominated in the other two states, Louisiana and Kentucky. Marco Rubio was barely heard from. [UPDATE: Trump dominated Louisiana among early voters, and the networks called it early for him. But on election day, we're witnessing a stunning turnaround, with Cruz closing in on his margin. Trump's early lead in Kentucky also narrowed late Saturday. Follow along live for Louisiana's results here and Kentucky's results here.]
Cruz said his victories marked "a real shift of momentum" among Republicans determined to take down Trump. Earlier Saturday, he also won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"I think what it represents is Republicans coalescing, saying it would be a disaster for Donald Trump to be our nominee," Cruz told reporters at an Idaho event. "They recognize, if we're divided, Donald wins. And if Donald wins, in all likelihood, Hillary wins."
The Texas senator didn't have much of an answer, though, when asked how he planned to overtake Trump's staggering lead in the number of delegates. Heading into Saturday night, Trump had 338 delegates and was polling at 43 percent nationwide, compared to Cruz's 254 delegates and 17 percent popularity.
"Well, listen, Donald has a delegate lead right now," he said. "We'll see what happens after today."
But the nomination is about more than just math. The GOP establishment is aiming to keep Trump underneath the threshold of 50 percent of delegates, to block him from securing it outright. If Trump is polling poorly by the time he limps into Cleveland, he'll be vulnerable to a power play at the party convention. Cruz feels like he's well positioned to be the Trump alternative (though, who knows, Republicans could always put forward someone popular, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, to be their nominee at the last minute).
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who once said voting for Trump or Cruz was like picking between "being shot or poisoned," has come around to supporting the Texas senator. "Ted Cruz is not my favorite by any means," he said Sunday on CBS. "But we may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump."
Saturday night was a major victory for Cruz symbolically, but in terms of actual delegates, it was a relatively minor setback for Trump. And there are several caveats: Cruz won in caucus states, where turnout is much lower, and they favor candidates who are extremely well organized, rather than ones like Trump, who are bringing disaffected voters back into the system. Only two remaining states, Hawaii and Utah, hold caucuses rather than primaries.
Trump is not set up to win caucus states, because his strategy relies entirely around free media exposure. He bought no air time on major stations in Kansas City, Missouri, or Wichita, Kansas, for instance, and didn't appear in the state until Saturday. Trump has also sent precious few staffers into most states. John Hulsizer, a senior campaign adviser for Trump, posted a rant on Facebook Tuesday night as the news broke that his candidate had lost Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Alaska. “How can we be expected to win States when National Staff makes decisions like only a Staff of 4 people to cover Texas and Oklahoma, not one single staffer in Alaska and in Minnesota there was just 1 staffer sent there three weeks ago,” Hulsizer complained, adding that national staff justified their decision by saying, "Mr. Trump doesn’t understand how delegates work, so we are leaving that issue alone right now."
Mark Campbell, Cruz's national political director, told The Huffington Post the Cruz campaign is running it the other way around. "Republicans have gotten away from running grassroots campaigns. We've worked exceptionally hard at it and are exceptionally proud of it," Campbell said. "What we try and do with our coalitions in each of the states: We have a leadership team, we have county chairmen and co-chairmen in every county. Then we recruit a Cruz Crew precinct captain in every precinct. It's a massive effort and takes a massive amount of time. But when people realize you value their time and energy, they are more than willing to help."
Trump's still leading Cruz by roughly 100 delegates, and looking ahead to the next primary elections -- Michigan and Mississippi are on March 8th -- Trump is poised to win there. He's polling far ahead in Michigan, where his populist message around the offshoring of jobs resonates, as does his appeal to rank racism and his promise to "build the wall." There is little polling in Mississippi, but Trump previously won neighboring Alabama in a romp.
Another factor behind Cruz's wins on Saturday: 82 percent of the Republicans voting were white Christians, an even higher percentage than on Super Tuesday. That advantage shrinks going forward, as does the percentages of very conservative voters in some of the March 15 states like Florida, Illinois and Missouri. (Cruz tends to win with people who go to church every week, while Trump wins among the broader group of people who simply say they're an evangelical Christian.)
Cruz's strategy to win the nomination has been visible for months, and is being executed in the methodical style Cruz is known for. In October, HuffPost reported that Cruz knew he wasn't an attractive enough candidates to be a majority's first choice, but he wanted to hang around long enough to be an acceptable alternative. It's working.
The night left the GOP establishment's preferred candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, even further hobbled. He didn't break 20 percent in any of Saturday's elections, and he's trailing badly in his home state, which votes March 15th. The only other GOP candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, was dead last in nearly all of the night's elections. He's still holding out to deny Trump a win in Ohio, where he's running close with the front-runner.
And for Trump, the hits keep coming. He stopped in Wichita for a rally Saturday, then went to a caucus to lobby for support. He was roundly booed. “I was definitely part of the booing,” said Ben Chambers, 24, of Wichita. “I’ve been listening to what he says and I’m not buying it, plus the guy can’t even spell the name of our town.”
From there, Trump hopped on a plane for Florida, where he asked his crowd to hold up their right hands and pledge their firm support for him.
Samantha-Jo Roth reported from Wichita. Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.
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