Texas Senator Ted Cruz scored a commanding victory over Donald Trump in Wisconsin’s presidential primary on Tuesday, putting the Republican frontrunner on notice that his march to the nomination was not a done deal.
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton also crashed to defeat, against upstart Senator Bernie Sanders.
Sanders has now won six of the last seven Democratic contests and can bolster his claim to be a viable alternative standard-bearer to the former secretary of state.
But the Wisconsin results are almost certainly more damaging for Trump.
The brash billionaire stormed to the fore last year but has suffered campaign trail setbacks in recent weeks with a series of controversial comments about abortion, Nato and nuclear weapons.
Cruz’s capturing most of Wisconsin’s 42 Republican delegates now makes it far less likely that Trump will win the 1237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination outright.
This raises the prospect of a contested convention in July when the delegates meet to choose the party nominee for the November presidential election.
“Tonight is a turning point. It is a rallying cry,” Cruz told cheering supporters in Milwaukee after he received a hug from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, one of several former 2016 presidential candidates who have endorsed Cruz.
“It is a call from the hardworking men and women of Wisconsin to the people of America. We have a choice, a real choice.”
Cruz and the anti-Trump movement had eyed Wisconsin, birthplace of the Republican Party, as a crucial firewall against the real estate tycoon’s march to become the GOP flag-bearer.
The Texas senator’s win in Wisconsin could well alter the trajectory of the Republican race.
“Trump needs every delegate to get to 1237, and tonight was a significant setback,” veteran election analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said.
“It’s not impossible for Trump to still get there, but the likelihood is that Trump will be a few dozen delegates short of a majority,” he added, meaning the likelihood of a contested convention had increased substantially.
Tuesday’s results cement Cruz’s status as the leading anti-Trump candidate, with Ohio governor John Kasich far back in the nomination battle.
But Cruz kept his victory speech positive, highlighting his policy platforms and turning his attention towards a possible general election face-off with Clinton. “Hillary, get ready. Here we come.”
Cruz also predicted he could earn the 1237 delegates needed to win the nomination.
That goal will be extremely difficult to reach; experts have projected Cruz would need to win 90% or more of the remaining delegates to reach the magic number.
US networks called the race for Cruz and Sanders within half an hour of polls closing in the Midwestern state, which borders Canada.
With 98% of votes counted, Cruz, a conservative senator from Texas, was ahead with 48.3% of the vote, compared to 35% for Trump. Kasich was a distant third at 14%. On the Democratic side, Vermont Senator Sanders led with 56.4% to 43.3% over Clinton.
“This campaign is giving energy and enthusiasm to millions of Americans,” Sanders told supporters in Wyoming, which holds a Democratic vote on Saturday.
Sanders said his momentum gave him an “excellent chance” to win California, Oregon and other states.
“We have a path toward victory, a path toward the White House,” he declared.
But Clinton, aiming to become the nation’s first female commander in chief, has the delegate maths in her favour and can look forward with some confidence to the upcoming races.
She leads Sanders by double digits in New York, her adopted home state which votes on April 19, and Pennsylvania, which casts ballots a week later.
Trump also leads handily in his home state of New York and in Pennsylvania.
His campaign for months had appeared immune to criticism or self-implosion. Yet the brash billionaire went into Tuesday’s vote having suffered a brutal week on the campaign trail, including comments expected to hurt him with women voters.
After the Wisconsin vote his team defiantly lashed out at Cruz, saying the senator had “the entire party apparatus behind him”.
“Ted Cruz is a puppet – he is a Trojan horse being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr Trump,” said the campaign in a statement reported by MSNBC.
Trump had 740 delegates heading into Tuesday. Cruz had 474 and Kasich 145, according to CNN.
If none reaches the magic number of 1237 before the Republican primary races wrap up on June 7, the nominee could be decided at a contested convention where, after the first ballot, delegates will be free to vote according to personal preference instead of being bound by the primary results.
Clinton had secured 1742 delegates prior to Tuesday – including 483 so-called “super-delegates” who are not bound by primary results – while Sanders has 1051 total, according to a CNN tally. A candidate needs 2383 delegates to secure the Democratic nomination.