Senator Ted Cruz picked up another swath of delegates in Wisconsin's primary on Tuesday night, adding further weight to his argument that he is the closest thing the Republicans have left to a true challenger to frontrunner Donald Trump.
NBC News called the race for Cruz as very early results trickled in on Tuesday evening, showing Cruz with a solid double-digit lead over Trump. With 99.9 percent of precincts reporting, Cruz led Trump with 48 to 35 percent of the vote. Ohio Governor John Kasich trailed with 14 percent of the vote.
Both the Cruz campaign and the Never Trump movement are hoping to deny Trump all of Wisconsin's 42 delegates on Tuesday night. The state divvies up 24 of their delegates between the winners of each congressional district and awards all of the remaining 18 to the candidate who wins the majority of votes statewide.
But they fell just short of that goal on Tuesday. Cruz ended the night with at 33 of the states delegates, but Trump picked up an additional three for his campaign. The remaining six delegates still need to be allocated.
Cruz thanked supporters in Wisconsin on Tuesday night at a campaign rally just before 10pm. Cruz reminded voters that "just three weeks [ago] the media had written off" Wisconsin as "a perfect state for Donald Trump."
"But the hardworking men and women of Wisconsin stood and campaigned tirelessly to make sure that tonight was a victory for every American," Cruz said.
But Cruz's win in Wisconsin's primary did not come as a surprise. Trump trailed Cruz by ten points in the most recent poll of the state, which was conducted before the primary by the Marquette University Law School. Trump also had a 70 percent disapproval rating among all Wisconsin voters — the highest of any of the presidential candidates.
Cruz's victory in Wisconsin was less of a hearty endorsement of the senator than it was about the utter distaste Republicans had for Trump there. Trump was widely disliked by Wisconsinites even last week, which was widely regarded as one of the worst of his campaign. The GOP frontrunner had no ground operation in the state or support from members of the state Republican Party there. He also made Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker one of his favorite punching bags early in the race, boasting after Walker out of the Republican race last fall that "we sent him packing like a little boy."
Unlike elsewhere in the country, the Republican establishment is actually fairly well-liked in Wisconsin (Walker has a 80 percent approval rating from Republican voters) and Trump's insults against their local Republican leaders backfired among the famously polite electorate.
Trump blamed his loss in Wisconsin on Tuesday night on the so-called "establishment" that has coalesced around Cruz in opposition to his campaign.
Trump, who was not expected to speak following the primary on Tuesday night and has no scheduled campaign events, criticized Cruz in a statement instead. Using his favorite "Lyin' Ted" moniker, the Trump campaign accused the senator of coordinating with the super PACs supporting him, which is illegal. Trump's campaign provided no evidence of coordination.
"Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet -- he is a Trojan horse being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump," campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in the statement. "We have total confidence that Mr. Trump will go on to win in New York, where he holds a substantial lead in all the polls, and beyond."
Trump's loss in Wisconsin won't sink his campaign, but it does put a dent in his so-far Teflon-coated candidacy as the primary race lurches into its final months. The next major contest is in New York on April 19, which is one of the biggest prizes of the 2016 presidential race and one that Trump is favored to win. But now Trump is going to have to spend the next two weeks leading up to that primary defending a major loss in Wisconsin, instead of sailing in on the momentum of a win. "That's not a narrative he wants to deal with," Dennis Riley, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, told VICE News earlier this week.
Wisconsin's outcome doesn't clinch the nomination for either Republican candidate, but it does increase the odds of a contested Republican convention. Cruz told supporters Tuesday night that the Wisconsin win gives him more confidence that he'll win the Republican nomination, "either before Cleveland or at the convention in Cleveland."
Cruz highlighted his recent victories in Colorado, North Dakota, Utah and now Wisconsin, calling them "very different states" and arguing that they prove his ability to win across the country, not just in the Republican primary, but in the general election.
"We are winning because we are uniting the Republican Party," he said, pointing to the five former 2016 candidates who have endorsed his campaign.
Cruz also argued that he is best positioned to take on Hillary Clinton in the general election, implying that the Democratic frontrunner would much rather face off against Trump in November. "Tonight was a bad night for Hillary Clinton. It was a bad night in the Democratic primary and it was an even worse night for her in the Republican primary," he said.
Cruz told supporters Tuesday that once Colorado and Wyoming finish their delegate selection processes over the next two weeks, "we are likely to have gained over 100 delegates on Donald Trump."
Even though Cruz will add to his delegate count on Tuesday night and over the next two weeks, it is still nearly impossible for him to get to the 1,237 that are necessary to win the nomination outright before the July convention. Cruz would have to sweep almost every single unbound delegate that remains up for grabs in order to be the surefire nominee by July. Trump is much closer to the 1,237 magic number, but he is also by no means guaranteed to get there before the convention.
Trump's loss in Wisconsin Tuesday night will only embolden the anti-Trump movement as the Republican contest nears its conclusion. Trump now needs to win about 67 percent of the remaining delegates up for grabs in the Republican primaries ahead. He should still be able to eke out enough of a win in New York to get most of the state's 95 delegates that are up for grabs. But even then, there's a growing chance that the Republican candidates will be heading into a contested convention that could prove even more bruising than the primary season that has played out so far.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLBecker
Update: This story was updated to include Cruz's victory night comments.