Tipping Point

Republican Crisis May Deepen If Trump Loses Wisconsin

If the Republican front-runner heads into the party's convention leading the delegate count, but is denied the nomination, his supporters may sit out the general election.

GOP Hopefuls Take Last Shots Before Wisconsin

A series of blazing red billboards with white capital letters rise above the Wisconsin tree line with a dire warning for conservatives: “The Republican Party Started Here. Vote Trump and It'll End Here, Too.”

But the crisis posed to Republicans on the billboards paid by some of the party's top financiers may be just as severe if Trump fails to claim the nomination.

That's because the goal of the anti-Trump movement—beating the New York businessman in a delegate fight at the party's national convention—risks alienating his motivated base of supporters. This passionate core of true believers has contributed to record turnout numbers in the first wave of primary polls, and, despite a series of missteps from Trump, they're not wavering in their support for the front-runner.

“If Trump has the most delegates and they go with someone else, I’m out,” said Joe Geiger, a Trump supporter from Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“Whoever has the most delegates should be nominated,” said Don Kleczka of Green Bay. Any other outcome, he said, and “I'll write his name in” for the general election in November.

Joyce Anzalone, a retired secretary in Racine, said she would be angry if Trump goes into the convention with the lead and doesn't get the nomination. “What they want to do is fudge the numbers, and I just think that's wrong,” she said before a Trump rally on April 2.

Tuesday's primary election in Wisconsin is threatening to shake up the race in both parties. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has lost the last five contests. Another victory for Senator Bernie Sanders would only raise the stakes in the next race in New York, which Clinton represented for eight years in the U.S. Senate. A CBS News poll on Sunday showed a virtual jump-ball in Wisconsin, with Sanders up by just 2 percentage points. 

The same poll showed Trump trailing Senator Ted Cruz by 5 percentage points. A pair of polls last week—one from Fox Business News and another from Marquette University—showed Cruz ahead by 10 points.

Those poll numbers have the #NeverTrump crowd sensing a shift in momentum. “As far as my objective of forcing this into a contested convention, I feel very optimistic about it,” said Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state who is working with a pair of anti-Trump groups, including Our Principles PAC, which paid for the Wisconsin billboards. Blackwell is also a board of directors member for Club for Growth, the Washington-based group that is backing Cruz.

Blackwell said the most likely scenario was Trump coming about 150 delegates short of the 1,237 he needs to secure the nomination before the convention. Once that happens, Cruz's campaign is better organized and will out-hustle Trump's team to flip delegates and win the nomination on the floor, he said. Trump has started to focus on the delegate battle, bringing on board Paul Manafort, a veteran of the last time the party had a contested convention in 1976.

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Blackwell said he wasn't concerned about a Cruz convention victory splitting the party, as long as the process was “transparent.” He also said the party could afford to alienate new voters Trump is bringing to the party—Blackwell referred to them as “undocumented Republicans”—because the traditional base would be motivated to stop Clinton.

“Folks will get over it,” Blackwell said. “The prospects of Hillary Clinton naming a liberal justice to the Supreme Court, expanding our welfare state and furthering our incompetence in international affairs will drive out the old base that didn't come out for Romney.”

At a fundraising dinner for Milwaukee Republicans on Friday, Judy Rodaks of Greendale said she didn't care how close Trump got to the nomination in the primary season. Whoever gets the majority of delegates in Cleveland should win, she said.

“It has nothing to do with popularity. It has nothing to do with the numbers right now,” Rodaks said. “It has to do with 1,237.”

Still, Trump is using the pending delegate fight to motivate his base. He has said that a plurality of delegates—instead of a majority, as stipulated in Republican National Committee rules—should be enough to win.

At a rally in Wisconsin on Saturday—just days after meeting with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus in Washington to discuss the convention—Trump called the delegate process “crooked as hell.”

“It's very unfair, the 1,237,” Trump told reporters on Sunday in Wisconsin, referring to the number of delegates needed for the Republican nomination. “When I went to those first primary states, we had many, many people on the ballot. And I won, you know, I could win a basically small number. And the small number is like a phenomenal number that you could get that much.”

On Sunday, Trump told reporters that he pushed the RNC to force one rival, Ohio Governor John Kasich, out of the race. Kasich's victory in his home state on March 15 is his only win so far this year.

Priebus, who spoke on all five Sunday morning news shows, said Trump's decision to abandon the party's loyalty pledge may cause trouble for him among convention delegates.

“Those kinds of comments I think have consequences,” Priebus said on ABC’s This Week. “And so when you make those kinds of comments, and you want people to fall in line for you, it makes it more difficult.”

But Trump isn't ceding Wisconsin. He's said that a victory in Wisconsin would all but end the primary race, and he's digging in, reflected by his decision to add campaign events to his schedule in recent days. Compared to traditional candidates who grind out long days on campaign buses visiting multiple cities, Trump's typical day on the stump is relatively low-energy; he usually flies into an airport hangar, delivers an hour-long monologue and then, after shaking hands and signing autographs, boards his private 757 and returns home.

Earlier this month, he mocked one rival, Kasich, for spending the night in Michigan while campaigning there. “Kasich was out in Michigan—he stayed there, he slept there,” Trump told reporters on March 21. “He was so sure of Michigan, and he lost Michigan to me.”

In Wisconsin, Trump stayed overnight in the Green Bay area last week. He had three rallies in the state on Saturday, and another three scheduled for Monday. 

“If I feel they stole it, I will stay home in November,” said Keith Duston, a Trump supporter from Brantwood, Wisconsin. “If he's ahead, he should get it. ... What's the point of having an election?”

With assistance from Kevin Cirilli in Wausau, Wisconsin.

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