NEW ORLEANS — Sen. Ted Cruz’s bid to become the chief alternative to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump gained steam Saturday, as he secured a commanding victory in the Kansas caucuses and appeared poised to claim a first-place finish in Maine.
As party leaders have wrung their hands over the prospect of Trump winning the Republican nomination, Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio have each sought to paint themselves as the only candidate who can take him down. They have accused Trump of feigning conservative values and fooling voters with promises he cannot keep.
“The scream you hear, the howl that comes from Washington D.C., is utter terror at what We the People are doing together,” Cruz said in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, speaking shortly after his projected victory was announced.
Trump’s detractors hope that a series of disappointing losses Saturday for Trump could signal a break in the populist momentum that has swept him to the top of the polls. Republican leaders fear that his bombastic personality and controversial rhetoric on Mexican immigrants and Muslims could ruin their chances of capturing the White House in the fall and damage the party brand permanently.
Cruz’s ascension comes after a week of intense criticism of the front-runner. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, called Trump a “fraud” on Thursday in a blistering speech at the University of Utah, and that night, Trump’s rivals launched similar attacks against him at a debate in Detroit.
But although Cruz’s rise could signal growing opposition to Trump’s candidacy within the party, it would be bittersweet for the party leadership. Both Cruz and Trump have run on anti-establishment messages and have put party establishment directly in their cross hairs.
The 2016 election pressed forward Saturday as five states held presidential nominating contests across the country. On a day dubbed “Super Saturday,” Republicans voted in Louisiana and caucused in Maine and Kentucky. Democrats also voted in Louisiana and caucused in Kansas and Nebraska.
The presidential race entered a new stage Tuesday after Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton (D) secured victories in a majority of the 11 partisan primaries and caucuses held that day, when hundreds of delegates were at stake. Clinton, the Democratic establishment favorite, has pulled sharply ahead of rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, while Trump’s wave of populist support showed little sign of waning even as he has endured scathing attacks from GOP leaders.
The fallout from Saturday’s contests will again pitch the election forward, as Clinton and Trump’s rivals seek to keep them at bay by maximizing their delegate counts. The two front-runners, meanwhile, are looking to protect their leads and to sustain their momentum ahead of a series of high-stakes, high-delegate races in mid-March.
“I don’t want to tell you that we’re 21 points up in Louisiana because you won’t vote,” a bullish Trump quipped Friday evening during a campaign event here in New Orleans. “You have to go out and vote, so let’s assume we’re tied, okay? Let’s assume. No, you have to go out and vote.”
In the lead-up to Saturday, the Cruz campaign focused its efforts on Kansas and Maine, which both held caucuses instead of primaries that the campaign hoped would favor its ground organization. In Maine, Cruz made a direct appeal to libertarian-leaning voters, hoping to siphon off voters who once supported Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.).
Trump and Cruz crossed paths at a caucus site in Wichita on Saturday morning, where each delivered abridged versions of their stump speech to potential supporters. On display was Cruz’s increasingly populist pitch, which he believes will help blunt Trump’s appeal moving forward. He directly singled out single mothers and working-class voters he said are struggling under Obama’s policies.
“The media tells us this is as good as it gets. That is an utter lie,” Cruz said. “The heart of our economy is not Washington, D.C. The heart of our economy is not New York City. The heart of our economy is small business all across this country.”
In Kansas, Rubio stumbled to a third-place finish despite racking up endorsement from major political figures in the state, including Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts. The senator is looking ahead to the March 15 primary in his home state of Florida, though Trump appears to have an enormous lead in the Sunshine State. The Rubio campaign has remained steadfast in its belief that the senator can turn things around; a loss there would be devastating for Rubio and would give Trump all of the state’s delegates, which will be allocated on a winner-take-all basis.
The Florida senator spent Saturday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., where he delivered an impassioned speech and was received warmly by the audience. He made a passing dig at Trump, who he has repeatedly accused of being a false conservative and a “con man” on the campaign trail.
“Young Americans have a chance to fulfill an incredible potential,” he said at the end of his address. “But we have to give them a chance. And they won’t have a chance if a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is elected. And they won’t have a chance if the conservative movement is hijacked by someone who isn’t a conservative.”
Rubio was scheduled to travel to Puerto Rico on Saturday evening, where voters are poised to give him a second primary win this cycle on Sunday. Victory in Puerto Rico could give him a boost on Florida, where a significant bloc of Puerto Ricans have relocated amid ongoing economic turmoil on the island.
Trump spent the afternoon in the Sunshine State, where he ripped apart “little Marco Rubio” and pitched himself to the crowd as the only Republican candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton. Trump said he hopes to win Kansas and Kentucky on Saturday, and he urged the Orlando crowd to vote for him in the March 15 GOP primary. At one point, Trump asked everyone in the audience to raise their right hand and swear to vote, trying their best to repeat a lengthy and at times rambling pledge.
“If we win Florida, it’s over,” Trump said. “If we win Florida and Ohio, it’s really over.”
In the Democratic contest, Sanders is facing down questions about how much longer he can realistically stay in the race with Clinton’s prohibitive delegate lead; she has 1,066, including superdelegates, to his 432.
Sanders has a good chance to win caucuses in Nebraska and Kansas on Saturday, the campaign manager for Clinton said last week. And he is also likely to win a caucus Sunday in Maine, which is close to his home state of Vermont. But Clinton is likely to prevail in the Louisiana primary by a wide margin the same day — and that would make her still come out ahead on the delegate math, said campaign manager Robby Mook.
“We have no doubt that as long as Sen. Sanders remains in the primary, he will continue to win elections along the way, but it will make little difference to Hillary’s pledged delegate lead,” Mook wrote in a state-of-the-race memo released a day after her big victory on Super Tuesday.
The voting Saturday “will reinforce this point,” Mook wrote. Sanders “has clear advantages and is investing heavily in two upcoming caucuses,” Mook wrote of Nebraska and Kansas.
Sanders has spent roughly double what Clinton has on advertising in Nebraska. Clinton went to Omaha to collect the endorsement of Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett but has not spent significant time campaigning there.
At a rally in Portland, Maine, last week, Sanders reminded the crowd how far he had come.
“We were up against the candidate supported by the entire political establishment, someone who had been anointed by the pundits,” he said. “Well guess what? It doesn’t look like she’s so inevitable now.”
Anne Gearan in Detroit, Jenna Johnson in Orlando, and Emily Guskin, Katie Zezima and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.