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“I think he may be trying to make a point there,” said Congressman Reid Ribble, a Republican who has vowed not to support Trump even if he becomes the GOP nominee. “I don’t think it’s going to go over that well with Paul Ryan supporters.”
Trump has made a habit of holding rallies in his rivals’ backyards, and this one was announced hours after Ryan condemned Trump’s rhetoric — without naming the businessman — in a speech last week. Trump’s visit comes on the heels of a campaign stop here by Ted Cruz as their campaigns duel for the delegates at stake in Ryan’s district. An automated poll released by Optimus on Monday showed Trump with 30 percent support in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, virtually tied with Cruz at 28 percent. Ohio Gov. John Kasich registered 26 percent support, with 16 percent of likely Republican primary voters undecided.
Trump’s primary campaign in Wisconsin and the case for his general election viability rest on his ability to turn out people who would otherwise stay home or vote Democratic in Rust Belt cities like Janesville, the Democratic-leaning seat of Democratic-leaning Rock County. “It’s the type of community Mr. Trump normally does very well in, a working-class type of area; and I think Mr. Trump’s message is going to resonate,” said Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.
While Trump holds strong appeal for conservatives in the more rural northern and western reaches of Wisconsin, he is likely to struggle in the Milwaukee suburbs that are typically the Republican power center. Cruz, also an anti-establishment firebrand, isn’t an ideal fit for the highly educated, upper-middle-class conservatives who tend to back pragmatic centrists like Ryan — but he is, at the moment, the establishment’s choice to serve as the vehicle for voters whose top priority is stopping Trump.
And winning a primary in a northern state could help the Texas senator show he’s more than just a factional, regional candidate and would likely energize anti-Trump Republicans in other states yet to weigh in on the primary process to keep up the fight.
“Ted Cruz is uniting the Republican Party,” said Matt Batzel, the executive director of American Majority Wisconsin, a conservative advocacy group. “He’s the one who’s able to bring them together to stop Trump.”
But Kasich, running as a pragmatic governor capable of winning in the fall, could play spoiler should he appeal to the suburban swing voters Cruz needs to overcome Trump’s strong support from rural voters.
“If Cruz can’t get the margins he needs in southeast Wisconsin to run up the score,” Batzel said, “he’s not going to be able to beat Trump.”
A win in Wisconsin’s April 5 primary would keep Trump on pace toward collecting the delegates he needs to clinch the GOP nomination. It would also net him a win in the home of three of the party establishment’s biggest names: Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
“This is make or break for Ted Cruz,” said Lewandowski in an interview Monday. “If he loses Wisconsin, the race is mathematically over. He’s eliminated.”
But the rest of the party does not intend to cede this ground to Trump. On Tuesday morning, Walker endorsed Cruz in a radio appearance with conservative host Charlie Sykes. On Monday, Sykes hammered Trump in a contentious interview in which the New York billionaire said he was unaware that Sykes has been a vocal critic of his candidacy.
Anti-Trump Republican groups are also hotly contesting the state.
“We believe we have a real shot at stopping him in Wisconsin, and if we do, he can't get to 1,237,” said Katie Packer, a former top aide to Romney and the founder Our Principles PAC, referring to the number of delegates Trump would need to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention. “So it's important.”
Packer’s organization is again spending six figures to mobilize these voters against the front-runner, with ads. Another anti-Trump PAC, Make America Awesome, is planning ad buys in the state, according to Liz Mair, the PAC’s founder and a former adviser to Walker’s presidential campaign.
There is a palpable undercurrent of anti-Trump sentiment that has establishment figures cautiously optimistic about the chances of dealing Trump a serious setback.
“For the longest time, it seemed like Trump was holding a dominant position,” Ribble said. “But something has changed. People who were staunch Trump supporters in January are now telling me they’re voting for Cruz or Kasich. There’s a phrase up here, ‘Wisconsin Nice.’ People admire Trump and the strength of his personality, but at some point they think he becomes a little irrational.”
“This is a fight about what the Republican Party is going to be — or whether it will be,” said Kanavas. "That's really what's at stake here."
And Trump’s rivals are pouring time and resources into the state to capitalize on the establishment’s late-breaking opposition to their party’s front-runner.
Cruz has been criss-crossing Wisconsin since last week and has set up “Camp Cruz” housing for volunteers, a step his campaign has not taken in any state since South Carolina. Kasich’s campaign has identified a group of congressional districts it believes it can win and is increasing ad buys in them, according to campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf.
Lewandowski insisted that Trump’s scheduled rally in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville on Tuesday afternoon is “by no means an affront to Mr. Ryan.”
And Ryan, for his part, is not taking offense. “Speaker Ryan is glad Republican candidates are campaigning for president in Wisconsin, including his hometown of Janesville,” said Zack Roday, a spokesman for the speaker, in a statement. “Wisconsin voters expect to talk with candidates seeking public office and hear their views on the major issues before our nation so they can make an informed decision."