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Ted Cruz wins Oklahoma Republican primary

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ted Cruz has won the Republican primary in Oklahoma, the Associated Press is reporting. This is a surprise, as recent polls showed Trump leading by about 10 points in the state.

Cruz's win in Oklahoma — along with a win in neighboring Texas and a strong performance in Arkansas (which is still too close to call) will allow Cruz to position himself as the conservative alternative to Donald Trump.

Ted Cruz needed to win in Oklahoma

Ted Cruz's best performance to date was in Iowa, where he narrowly beat Donald Trump in the Iowa caucus, a state rich in evangelical votes. So it's not surprising that he would do well in a state like Oklahoma, where 74 percent of Republican primary voters were evangelical in 2012. Another evangelical-friendly candidate, Rick Santorum, won the state in 2012.

Cruz's problem is that Santorum went on to lose the Republican nomination to Mitt Romney. If Cruz were on track to secure the Republican nomination, he should have won Oklahoma by a comfortable margin and been competitive in other Southern states like Georgia and Alabama — both of which went to Trump.

An endorsement from Sen. Jim Inhofe didn't help Marco Rubio

Back in January, Rubio picked up a key endorsement from longtime Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe. Inhofe touted the pair's "shared, similar values." He also extolled Rubio's foreign policy expertise.

But Oklahoma voters don't seem to have been persuaded by Inhofe's endorsement. They chose Cruz over Rubio by a wide margin.

Trump is riding a nationwide wave of popularity

Cruz's Texas and Oklahoma wins come against a background of Trump victories elsewhere. Polls ahead of Tuesday's vote showed Trump with double-digit leads in at least seven of the 11 states holding primaries, and Trump has already clinched at least four states: Massachusetts, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.

No matter how well he does on Tuesday, Trump won't yet have enough votes to clinch the Republican nomination. But he's still tonight's big winner, and Cruz is going to have to do better to catch up to him.