Sen. Ted Cruz was projected to win the Wisconsin primary Tuesday, delivering a stunning blow to GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and resetting the race as it heads east later this month.
Networks called the race soon after polls closed at 9 p.m. eastern time, based on exit polling that showed Mr. Cruz with a sizable lead. With 37 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Cruz led Mr. Trump by 53 percent to 30 percent, followed by Mr. Kasich with 15 percent.
“Tonight is a turning point. Tonight is a rallying cry,” Mr. Cruz said at his election night party. “It is a call from the hardworking men and women of Wisconsin to the people of America: We have a choice, a real choice.”
Mr. Cruz said the victory is a sign of his growing momentum, and highlighted the backing he has received from five of his former GOP presidential rivals, as well as the recent contests in Utah, Colorado and North Dakota that he said has convinced him he is going to earn the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination before the Republican National Convention.
“Either before Cleveland or at the convention in Cleveland, together we will the majority of the delegates and together we will beat Hillary Clinton in November,” Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. Cruz had said a victory would show he is consolidating the anti-Trump voters within the GOP behind his bid, and indeed that appeared to be the case as he and Mr. Trump went head-to-head, making multiple appearances a day to try to build support.
“We are winning because we are uniting the Republican party,” Mr. Cruz said.
But Mr. Trump was unable to recover from a bad week that saw his campaign manager charged with simple battery after an altercation with a reporter, and saw the candidate himself stumble on abortion and other points of conservative orthodoxy.
He also faced a barrage of questions about his sliding poll numbers among female voters, leading him to deploy his wife Melania on the campaign trail.
The Cruz victory also makes it tougher for Mr. Trump to win the nomination outright on a first ballot at the July convention.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the third man in the race, insisted he’s staying in despite another loss.
“The nomination contest is now wide open,” Kasich campaign strategist John Weaver said in a memo issued just before polls closed. “This week will be remembered as the one in which Ted Cruz and Donald Trump both effectively admitted they will not reach the GOP Convention with enough bound delegates to be the nominee.”
Mr. Kasich argues, and polling confirms, that he runs the best of the three GOP candidates against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. But GOP primary voters have paid little attention to that as they pick their champion.
Mr. Trump is hoping to avoid a contested convention, which would give most delegates — many of them party regulars that are not thrilled with Mr. Trump — the chance to cast their support behind whoever they please after the first ballot.
Mr. Trump has said that it would be hard for the GOP to redirect the nomination to another candidate if he entered the convention close to the magic number of delegates needed.
Exit polls out of Wisconsin showed that 56 percent of GOP voters said the candidates that has collected the most votes in the primaries should win the party’s nomination. Four in 10, meanwhile, said they favor a contested convention, and that delegates should tap the nominee.
Mr. Trump’s fingerprints were all over the exit polls, with seven in ten voters saying they support his proposal to put a temporary freeze on non-US Muslims entering the country.
Exit polls also showed that trade weighed heavily on the minds of Republican voters, with over half of them saying the United States was getting the raw end of trade deals.
Six in ten GOP voters said illegal immigrants should be offered a path to citizenship, which is higher than what came out of most other primary states, and a third called for their deportation.
Half of the voters sought a candidate with political experience, and about half said they wanted a candidate from outside the political establishment.
Mr. Cruz, meanwhile, was seen as the GOP’s best bet to beat Hillary Clinton in a general election match-up, followed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kasich.