What Cruz's thumping of Trump means

Ted Cruz on Wisconsin win: Tonight is a turning point
Ted Cruz on Wisconsin win: Tonight is a turning point

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    Ted Cruz on Wisconsin win: Tonight is a turning point

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Ted Cruz on Wisconsin win: Tonight is a turning point 01:20

Story highlights

  • Ted Cruz won the Republican primary in Wisconsin on Tuesday night
  • Buck Sexton: Even if he can't win nomination outright, Cruz does benefit from beefing up his delegate stockpile

Buck Sexton is a political commentator for CNN and host of "The Buck Sexton Show" on TheBlaze. He was previously a CIA counterterrorism analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Ted Cruz won in Wisconsin -- by even more than most recent polls indicated -- in an absolutely essential victory for his campaign. With nearly 50% of the vote going for Cruz, it wasn't just a win. It was a thumping and marks the single most important night of the senator's campaign since Iowa.

In every respect, the Wisconsin result breathes renewed life into the Cruz camp. It means that Sen. Cruz has narrowed Donald Trump's path to victory, pushing further from his grasp that all-important delegate number of 1,237.
    It proves that Ted Cruz can play and win in a critical battleground state, and it bolsters the Cruz campaign narrative that, in a less fractured field with a head-to-head fight (John Kasich notwithstanding), Cruz is the choice of a majority of the GOP electorate. Cruz's big night in Wisconsin helps solidify all these positions, and his campaign's odds of success are quickly turning from long shot to coin toss.
    Of course, there's still a lot of race to run. With a majority of Wisconsin's 42 delegates now in his pocket, Cruz has cut down Trump's lead, but he still trails by a wide margin. Realistically, holding Trump below the 1,237 threshold is probably the best outcome for the senator.
    Trump can still win outright; Cruz almost certainly can't.
    The Texan senator would need considerably more than three quarters of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination pre-convention. Barring Trump dropping out of the race, an event of force majeure or invasion by alien powers, that's not going to happen. Cruz needs to push this GOP race into overtime, which means taking this all the way to a contested convention.
    In the meantime, even if he can't win the nomination outright, Cruz does benefit from beefing up his delegate stockpile -- both mathematically and thematically.
    This is where wins such as Wisconsin become essential to Cruz's campaign narrative. If Cruz can't get to 1,237, he will have to make a case to the American people (and just as importantly, GOP delegates at the convention) that he is, in fact, the preferred candidate of Republican voters despite trailing in overall delegates. This is a precarious position for Cruz but not an impossible one.
    Assuming he makes it to the convention, the first hurdle to Cruz's contention as the true GOP nominee will almost certainly be the topline delegate count. Trump is likely to be ahead of Cruz in overall delegates awarded, even if the senator beats all expectations from now until the last GOP primaries are held in June. Come July, that will mean Cruz has to make a convincing case that despite being in second place, he should actually be considered No. 1.
    To do so, Cruz will point to the states he has won outright, but he will focus even more on the states where the winnowed GOP field allowed for a more direct comparison, a mano a mano showdown of Trump vs. Cruz.
    Without the distractions of other candidates, Cruz has done very well against Trump. Wisconsin is certainly an important part of this story, though it will have to be one of many upcoming statewide victories to win out on the convention floor.
    For team Cruz, none of this will be easy. Some of the GOP primary states still ahead -- including New York (April 19) and California (June 7) -- have treasure troves of delegates at stake, and early polling shows that they could be hostile territory for Cruz's brand of Constitutional evangelism.
    If Trump blows out Cruz in major states -- even those expected to go blue in the general election -- it will make Cruz's case to be the true choice of the Republican Party that much more difficult.
    His claims to the nomination will sound more like a rationalization than right-thinking.
    And if Trump sits in clear first place going into the convention -- and anyone other than Trump emerges as the GOP nominee - the likelihood of a party fissure of seismic proportions will skyrocket.
    Given the seemingly invincible nature of the Trump campaign juggernaut, Cruz managing to stay in the fight this long is impressive enough.
    He has had to survive the anti-establishment purges that ended the presidential hopes of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Chris Christie. His message discipline and campaign ground game have been indefatigable. And his clear win in Wisconsin certainly energizes all those who have believed in the senator from day 1.
    But come July, at the end of this most unconventional and unpredictable of GOP primary fights, if Sen. Ted Cruz is the last candidate standing of the original 17, there will be some who opt for one word to describe his win over all the rest: "miracle."