The Democratic race isn’t over yet. Hillary Clinton claimed victory in Kentucky on Tuesday while Bernie Sanders comfortably won the Oregon primary. Donald Trump, the last man standing in the Republican 2016 race, unsurprisingly secured a victory in Oregon.
The results won’t fundamentally change the trajectory of the competition, but the outcome in the Democratic primary is nevertheless significant. Clinton continues to edge closer to formally securing the Democratic nomination and managed to slow some of Sanders’s recent momentum with her win in Kentucky. For Sanders, victory in Oregon creates an opportunity to claim moral high ground and helps him continue to justify his presence in the race, even though winning the nomination remains effectively out of reach.
Sanders was widely expected to win in Oregon, a state with a heavily white electorate and the only sitting senator to endorse Sanders, Jeff Merkley. The Kentucky primary contest, on the other hand, turned out to be a nail-biter. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes declared Clinton the “unoffical winner” late in the evening in an interview with CNN as the network’s own vote tally showed an extremely tight race with 99 percent of the vote counted. While Clinton might have liked to have won by a wider margin, her campaign is surely breathing a sigh of relief: This will make it easier to fend off questions about her Democratic rival. A loss would have been embarrassing given the hours Clinton spent campaigning in the state, which she won in the 2008 Democratic primary against then-challenger Barack Obama.
Beyond the immediate results, what’s striking is how contentious the Democratic primary has become at this late stage. Over the weekend, Sanders supporters at Nevada’s state Democratic convention protested, claiming party elites had tipped the scales in Clinton’s favor. The senator’s fans started to harass and violently threaten the state Democratic chairwoman. At least some Democrats are worried about the potential for a serious rift in the party.
Facing pressure to denounce the hostilities, Sanders was defiant. The Vermont senator condemned “any and all forms of violence” in a statement Tuesday afternoon. But he maintained that the convention was unfair, making it likely the furor won’t die down soon. As vote results rolled in Tuesday evening, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had sharp words for Sanders. “The senator’s response was anything but acceptable,” Schultz said bluntly in an interview with CNN. She added ominously: “It is never okay for violence and intimidation to be the response to that frustration. That’s what happens on the Trump campaign. We can never resort to the tactics that they engage in.”
Trump, on the other hand, did not appear interested in feuding with members of his party, at least for the moment. Instead, he spent much of the evening tweeting about his interview with Fox News personality Megyn Kelly and previewing attacks on Clinton. “I look so forward to debating Crooked Hillary Clinton! Democrat Primaries are rigged, e-mail investigation is rigged—so time to get it on!,” Trump tweeted at one point.
Sanders, as he has done many times before, vowed to fight on as he addressed a crowd in California, which will hold its primary contest next month. “Let me be as clear as I can be ...we are in until the last ballot is cast,” he promised. “Don’t tell Secretary Clinton, she might get nervous, I think we’re going to win here in California,” he added to cheers and applause, before promising to “take our fight into the convention.”
The challenge for Democrats, and particularly for Clinton, is to find out how to preserve unity as the primary drags on. One question is whether the kind of hostility seen in Nevada will play out at the national convention this summer. “There’s not going to be any violence in Philadelphia,” Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN on Tuesday. “Whoever the ultimate nominee is we want to unify the party … so that we can all go out and defeat Donald Trump in the fall. I don’t think there’s any question about that. What happened in Nevada, I think, is an aberration.” That likely won’t be enough to quell fears among Democrats who are concerned that unity will be difficult to achieve.
By some measures, there are plenty of Democrats who have coalesced around Clinton. She has amassed a popular vote lead of more than 3 million votes. And many Sanders supporters may switch allegiances if she becomes the nominee. People tend to vote according to the party they align with, and the threat of a Trump presidency may motivate disaffected Democrats not to sit on the sidelines of a general-election matchup featuring Clinton.
Still, Team Clinton undoubtedly would have preferred to be done with Sanders by now. The secretary and her allies have made clear they are now looking toward the general election. Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC, is set to begin airing attack ads against Trump in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Nevada. As Clinton and her allies ramp up anti-Trump rhetoric, they risk alienating Sanders supporters who may feel that Clinton is taking her nomination for granted. At this point, though, Clinton doesn’t really have any other options. Trump has begun to escalate attacks against her. She can hardly meet the real-estate mogul’s words with silence. —Clare Foran