Hillary Clinton eked out a narrow victory in Kentucky on Tuesday, avoiding a sweep by Bernie Sanders as she continued to try to keep her sights set on a general election battle with Donald Trump.
With nearly all precincts in the state reporting, Clinton led Sanders by less than 2,000 votes out of more than 400,000 cast.
In a Democratic race that has become more about psychology than delegates, the Kentucky contest took on outsized importance as Clinton worked to avoid a double loss for the day. Sanders was declared the winner in the night’s other contest, in Oregon.
She lost heavily in the coal-dominated counties of eastern Kentucky that once were Democratic bastions but have largely abandoned the party in federal elections. But the Democratic front-runner made up the difference by winning the state’s two largest cities, Lexington and Louisville.
As the results were being counted, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said on CNN that the tight race in Kentucky showed there were still reservations about Clinton. She won the state handily during the 2008 primary.
“There are a lot of Democrats who are having second thoughts,” Weaver said. “I don’t think the voters are ready for this race to be over.”
Clinton has a comfortable lead in the race for delegates to this summer’s nominating convention and only needs to win a small fraction of the remaining vote to clinch the nomination.
Tensions overflowed in Nevada over the weekend, when Sanders supporters accused party leaders of unfairly awarding Clinton more delegates during the state convention. The state party rejected the charges _ Clinton, after all, had won the caucuses earlier this year _ but its leaders were bombarded with criticism, invective and even threats.
Sanders issued a statement Tuesday condemning harassment but blaming the party leadership for the fracas.
“The Democratic Party has a choice,” he said. “It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change ... or the party can choose to maintain its status quo.”
Although Sanders has only a slim chance of winning the nomination at this point, he has vowed to continue his campaign until the convention in Philadelphia in July.
Clinton currently leads Sanders among pledged delegates, 1,716 to 1,433. She also has the loyalty of many more superdelegates, the elected officials and party leaders who can choose which candidate to support.
The gap has allowed Clinton and her allies to turn their attention, and their fundraising firepower, to Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.
Priorities USA, a super PAC allied with Clinton, is spending $6 million to run two new television advertisements hitting Trump in Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia. A statement from the organization called Trump “a dangerous and divisive con man who should never be president of the United States.”
Sanders was leading in early returns in Oregon, despite a recent poll showing him trailing there, but Clinton has made a heavy investment in time, and some money, in Kentucky in recent days. Turnout there was expected to be low.
While Clinton left Oregon off her travel itinerary, she held five events in two days in Kentucky, not to mention visits to churches and a diner.
She told the crowd at the diner that she would ask her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to help out on economic issues if she reaches the White House.
“I’ll expect him to go to work ... to get incomes rising,” she said.
Her final rally was at Transylvania University in Lexington, where she made her last pitch before beating then-Sen. Barack Obama in the state’s primary in 2008.
Clinton even outspent Sanders on television advertising in Kentucky, dropping $178,000 compared with Sanders’ $107,000, according to data from SMG Delta, which tracks campaign spending. In recent primaries, Clinton has generally allowed Sanders to dominate the airwaves, and she didn’t spend any money in Oregon, where Sanders dropped $123,000.
Oregon has had a robust contingent of Sanders volunteers, and they’ve helped rally nationwide support for the candidate by using phone banks to target other states. Monte Jarvis, the campaign’s state director, said it was important to redirect the focus to Oregon for the primary.
“They had all this time with a national picture in our mind,” he said. “And we had to say, ‘No, no, Oregon needs attention.’”
Jillian Schoene, the Oregon state director for Clinton’s campaign, expects Sanders supporters to shift their allegiance to Clinton after the primary.
When volunteers make phone calls, voters often say, “I’m going to vote for Bernie in the primary but I’ll vote for Hillary in November,” Schoene said. “We are hearing a lot of that.”
Referring to Trump’s “divisive language,” she said, “Democrats are going to unite against that.”