WASHINGTON – Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton rolled up big victories in important presidential primary contests in Florida, North Carolina and elsewhere Tuesday, while Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida dropped out of the GOP race after he failed to win his home state.
Trump’s Florida win gave him another 99 delegates in his quest for the 1,237 needed to clinch the Republican presidential nomination and forced Rubio from the race. Rubio, a youthful senator whose campaign stumbled on the thorny issue of immigration, suspended his campaign about 25 minutes after the polls closed. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez had endorsed Rubio and campaigned for him in Florida on March 5.
“After tonight, it is clear that while we are on the right side, this year we will not be on the winning side,” Rubio said in announcing his withdrawal from the race.
Rubio, a favorite of Republican leaders, is the latest candidate to fall victim to an unpredictable election cycle and Trump’s unmatched ability to tap into the public’s anger with Washington and frustration with sweeping economic changes. Trump also prevailed in Illinois, but he was in a tight battle in Missouri against Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas late into the night.
Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich prevailed in his home state’s GOP primary Tuesday and collected its 66 delegates, giving his campaign new life but a still difficult path the Republican nomination. Cruz, who has a better chance of catching Trump in the delegate chase than Kasich, also remained in the race after Tuesday’s primaries.
Meanwhile, Clinton won Democratic nominating contests in delegate-rich Ohio, Florida, Illinois and North Carolina. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose populist campaign has energized young voters, fell further behind in the Democratic delegate count Tuesday night. He and Clinton remained neck-and-neck in the nomination contest in Missouri late Tuesday.
“We are moving closer to securing the Democratic Party nomination and winning this election in November,” Clinton said at her victory rally after the television networks declared she had won Ohio.
Clinton’s victories in Ohio and Florida bolstered her argument that she’s the strongest Democratic candidate to take on Republicans in the general election. Her win in Ohio was a particular relief for her campaign, which grew anxious after rival Bernie Sanders pulled off a surprising win last week in Michigan, another important Midwestern state.
Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico political science professor, said that Clinton’s strong showing Tuesday will make it very difficult for Sanders to stop her but that overall Democratic enthusiasm for Clinton is lukewarm.
“She has the nomination,” all but clinched, Atkeson said. “But there are still a lot of people supporting Bernie Sanders, and the question is, will they support Hillary or will they drop out in the general election?”
New Mexico’s primary election is June 7, typically a date well after the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations have been decided. But the long, drawn-out Republican contest – and the fact that three Republican candidates still remain – means that New Mexico’s GOP presidential primary could become a factor.
“New Mexico Republicans should be somewhat excited that their vote might count,” Atkeson said.
Debbie Maestas, chairwoman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said Tuesday’s high voting turnout in the Republican primaries shows enthusiasm about the race among rank-and-file Republicans.
“Republicans are excited,” Maestas said. “It will be great for the general election, and it leaves us with three credible candidates.”
Debra Haaland, chairwoman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, said that Clinton “definitely had a strong night” and that New Mexico will be ready to support her if she wins the nomination, or Sanders if he were to somehow prevail.
“We are working every day at the party to strengthen it,” Haaland said. “We want them (the eventual Democratic nominees) to be plugged in and help them get to work” in the state in the general election.
Trump entered Tuesday’s primaries embroiled in one of the biggest controversies of his contentious campaign. The GOP front-runner has encouraged supporters to confront protesters at his events and is now facing accusations of encouraging violence after skirmishes at a rally last week in Chicago. The atmosphere at his events has deepened the concern over his candidacy in some Republican circles. Rubio and Kasich have suggested they might not be able to support Trump if he’s the nominee, an extraordinary stance for intraparty rivals.
Trump’s closest competition so far has come from Cruz, who has kept relatively close to the businessman in the delegate count. Cruz has been urging Rubio and Kasich to step aside and let him get into a one-on-one race.
Even before Tuesday’s results, a group of conservatives was planning a meeting to discuss options for stopping Trump, including at a contested convention or by rallying around a third-party candidate. While such no candidate has been identified, the participants in Tuesday’s meeting planned to discuss ballot access issues, including using an existing third party as a vehicle or securing signatures for an independent bid.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.