It took a last-minute campaign blitz and a significant financial investment for Clinton to win the Kentucky Democratic primary by half a percentage point over her stubborn primary foe Bernie Sanders — in a state she won by 35 percentage points over Barack Obama in their 2008 primary clash and where her family has deep political roots going back decades.
Sanders, after racing Clinton right up to the finish line in the Bluegrass State, easily won the Oregon primary, and declared at a raucous rally in California that despite pressure from the Clinton campaign to abandon his quest for the nomination, he would stay in the race “until the last ballot is cast.”
Clinton did not appear in public on Tuesday night, but her campaign tweeted thanks to the people of Kentucky and said “we’re always stronger united.”
In the end, Tuesday’s political drama didn’t measurably alter the state of the Democratic primary. Sanders is poised to walk away with more delegates than Clinton from the night. But Clinton maintains an overall lead of roughly 280 pledged delegates with only one significant night remaining in the contest — June 7, when, win or lose the states in play that night, she is expected to formally clinch the nomination after voters in delegate-rich California and New Jersey weigh in.
But Clinton’s cliffhanger victory in Kentucky, where the Secretary of State’s office said she led by 1,923 votes with all precincts reporting, spared her the embarrassment of a brace of losses on Tuesday and will counter a media narrative that her failure to finally snuff out the Sanders campaign is a sign of weakness.
Clinton’s wafer-thin victory margin did, however, point to vulnerabilities in her campaign that will complicate the task of uniting the party once the primary finally ends.
Despite the former secretary of state’s status as the almost certain Democratic nominee, tens of thousands of Democratic voters still prefer another candidate — Sanders. It’s a scenario that will do little to ease questions about enthusiasm for her candidacy, message to blue collar workers and personal campaigning skills that could resurface in a general election campaign against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Clinton headlined 11 campaign events over the last few weeks in Kentucky, but may have been hurt by her remarks in a CNN town hall meeting in Ohio in March that her clean energy plan would put coal companies “out of business.”
On the plus side for Clinton, Tuesday had a happier ending than losses in West Virginia and Indiana in recent weeks — states she also won against Obama in 2008. And while Kentucky’s returns will be pored over by pundits, they did not reshape the state of the race. In addition to her pledged delegate lead, she has an overwhelming advantage among superdelegates — party officials and lawmakers who can vote however they choose in July’s Democratic National Convention. In order to deprive her of the nomination, Sanders would have to convince large numbers of super delegates that she is too badly damaged to beat Trump in November — a Herculean task.
But at the same time, Clinton’s need to devote time and resources to uniting her own party to ensure a heavy Democratic turnout in November comes at a moment when she is waging a two-front war against Trump. The billionaire is seizing on complaints from Sanders supporters that the primary system is stacked against them — which erupted into violence and recriminations at Saturday’s Nevada state party convention — to tear at fault lines in the Democratic coalition. Now, instead of devoting time to taking on Trump in swing states like Ohio and Virginia she needs in November, she must shore up her flank against Sanders in remaining primary states.
Trump taunted Clinton about the closeness of the Kentucky race.
“Do you think Crooked Hillary will finally close the deal?” Trump tweeted. “If she can’t win Kentucky, she should drop out of race. System rigged!”
Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN that the close race in Kentucky was a sign that a lot of Democrats “are having second thoughts” about Clinton. “The media is ready to call this race over, but I think voters in the various states want to see this race go on.”
The tight race follows a dramatic few days in which the divide among Democrats — overshadowed for much of the primary season by the rollicking GOP contest — is increasingly apparent. The Nevada State Democratic Convention tipped into chaos this weekend as Sanders’ supporters cursed and hurled insults at Clinton allies.
The tumult jarred the party as top members including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid blasted Sanders’ response and Sanders argued the party establishment is lining up against him.
Clinton and her allies seem especially eager to move on to the general election phase of the campaign. Priorities USA, the pro-Clinton super PAC, will begin airing general election ads against Trump Wednesday in states that will be key battlegrounds in November, including Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Nevada.
According to the latest CNN estimates, Clinton and Sanders will both win 26 delegates in Kentucky with three remaining to be decided. In Oregon, Sanders will win 31 delegates and Clinton will take 20 with 10 remaining to be accounted for. To date, Clinton has 2,289 delegates, 1,768 of whom are pledged and 521 are superdelegates. Sanders has 1,522 delegates, including 1,481 pledged delegates and 41 superdelegates. A total of 2,383 delegates are needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.
As expected, Trump won the Republican contest in Oregon which was moot since his remaining rivals have already dropped out of the race. Still, the primary brought the billionaire to within fewer than 70 delegates of the 1,237 delegates he needs to formally claim the nomination.