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U.S. Democrats Are Still Fighting Over Who Should Be President

Hillary Clinton barely won Kentucky on Tuesday, while her rival from Vermont earned a definitive victory in Oregon. What will this mean for the general?

Mel Evans / AP

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

Updates

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Keep on keepin’ on. That seemed to be Bernie Sanders’ plan Tuesday night as he addressed supporters at a Carson, California, rally. He largely brushed aside the primaries in Oregon and Kentucky held today, instead focusing his hype on the Golden State, which votes June 7. Tuesday’s events marked “the beginning of the final push to win California,” Sanders said, before jabbing at pundits who’ve called for him to drop out of the race. “Let me be as clear as I can be ... we are in till the last ballot is cast.”

As Sanders spoke, CNN called Oregon for Sanders, and the crowd erupted in cheers. The network also soon declared that Clinton snagged Kentucky. Before the Oregon announcement, Sanders appeared ready to move on from those states. Talking Kentucky, he seemed to signal that he never was expected to win big there: “Secretary Clinton defeated Barack Obama by 250,000 votes in 2008.” Sanders lightly criticized Kentucky’s closed primary, where Independents—who’ve fueled past Sanders wins—can’t vote. But despite those obstacles, “it appears tonight that we’re going to end up with about half the delegates from Kentucky.”

Sanders predicted he had a “shot” to win primaries in a “number” of upcoming primary states, though it would be virtually impossible for him to catch up to Clinton’s delegate count. The next round of Democratic primaries will be held June 7, and the last contest will be June 14 in Washington, D.C. For now, he’s predicting a California victory. But “don't tell Secretary Clinton,” he told supporters. “She might get nervous.”

With 99 percent of Kentucky’s votes reported, the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is still too close to call. She has roughly 212,000 votes, while Sanders is just behind her at 210,000. Whichever candidate loses will likely spin the loss in a way that’s favorable to his or her campaign. But if either is feeling spiteful, they could place some of the blame on Martin O’Malley.

Roughly 5,700 Kentuckians voted for the former Maryland governor, who dropped out of the race after a disappointing showing at the Iowa caucuses in February. Given that the margin between Clinton and Sanders is just 2,000 votes, his voters may have a real impact on tonight’s results. As my colleague Yoni quipped on Twitter earlier, “O’Malley is finally poised to play a decisive role in a Democratic primary election.”

It’s impossible to know which contender O’Malley voters would’ve backed if they hadn’t voted for him. There’s plenty of overlap between all three politicians. He’s a longtime public servant, and campaigned for Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid. Before Sanders got into the primary picture, O’Malley was supposed to challenge her from the left.

DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz just spoke to Wolf Blitzer about the mayhem this weekend in Nevada—and had some harsh words for Bernie Sanders. “When I heard what happened at the Nevada State Democratic Convention, I was deeply disturbed,” she said. “Chairs were thrown at the stage ... the Sanders campaign should not only outright condemn that specific conduct, but they also need to take steps to correct it.”

“Unfortunately,” she continued, “it has not been unequivocally condemned. The senator’s response was anything but acceptable.”

For reference, here is Sanders’s statement. Wasserman Schultz, who said she hasn’t spoken to Sanders personally yet, seemed perturbed that the senator got through more than half his speech before he condemned violence. But his surrogates on CNN noted that no Sanders supporters were arrested in Nevada and drew attention to Wendell Pierce, an actor who starred in The Wire and is accused of attacking a Sanders supporter in Atlanta.

So here’s a conundrum. The latest polling from Oregon shows Clinton beating Sanders by 15 points. But the betting markets give Sanders an 80 percent chance of winning that state (though Clinton has risen a bit as her showing in Kentucky has solidified). What gives?

Sanders has done very well in the Pacific Northwest, winning handily in Washington and Idaho. And his strongest showing in Nevada was along the northern border with Oregon. But if Clinton pulls through in Kentucky, it’ll preserve a streak that could prove important later tonight: She has never lost a state with a closed primary, as is the case in both Oregon and Kentucky.

One looming question during tonight’s primary races: Does it really matter? In terms of delegate numbers, as we’ve written, Clinton’s lead over Sanders is basically not surpassable. But there’s another question: What do these primaries say about how well a candidate might perform in the general?

With a race this close between the two Democratic contenders in Kentucky, it’s hard to think either could necessarily rally the kind of support needed to win against Trump in November. The state strongly trends Republican in national races. The last time the Bluegrass State went blue in a presidential election was 20 years ago, in 1996.

Then again, that was in support of a Clinton.

Andrew mentioned earlier how good voters have it in Oregon, where they are sent ballots through the mail and can either return them by post or drop them off at select ballot sites. Their voting experiences are potentially very different from that of New Yorkers, Arizonans, and other Americans who suffered through long lines at polling sites this year.  

Indeed, ​The Oregonian’s descriptions of easy-breezy voting would probably make queue-weary voters jealous—or incensed Oregon’s practices aren’t more widespread. Lots of voters probably wish casting ballots were as easy as going through a McDonald’s drive-thru, as they are in at least one neighborhood in Portland. A sampling from the newspaper:

Eager voters in cars, trucks, bicycles—even a guy on a purple scooter—rolled up to the official ballot drop box in Medford Tuesday morning to make their vote count. ... On Tuesday morning, a steady stream of cars pulled up to the drive-through Multnomah County ballot drop-off site located next to the McDonald’s drive-through in Northeast Portland's Hollywood District. As the motorists deposited their ballots, a few pedestrians waited their turn. ... A steady stream of voters arrived at [Portland’s] Pioneer Square on foot, on bikes and by MAX [Light Rail] to drop off their ballots Tuesday afternoon.

Sure looks like a nail-biter in Kentucky, doesn’t it? Sanders and Clinton are a few thousand votes apart at this moment. But while this feels novel—and exciting!—right now, it isn't that unusual for this odd, long primary.

Remember Iowa? The two contenders were separated by just three-tenths of a percentage point in that contest, with Clinton taking the lead and the majority of the delegates. Then came Massachusetts, with Sanders sweeping in from the north and west against Clinton’s stronghold in Boston, with Clinton crowned the victor by little over a percentage point. A few months later, Michigan went to Sanders by about the same margin.

But the closest so far was Missouri, where just 1,500 votes and two-tenths of a percentage point separated Sanders from Clinton, who eventually carried the state. There, as may be the case in neighboring Kentucky, urban counties gave Clinton the slight advantage. But it was a wash in delegates: Clinton got 36, Sanders got 35. A similar result might be in the works for Kentucky.

Man, the Democratic race in Kentucky is incredibly close. Right now, CNN is reporting 95 percent of precincts in, with 195,212 votes for Clinton and 195,015 votes for Sanders. That’s just 197 votes in between the two candidates—or .000504 percent of the total votes counted so far in this race.

Hillary Clinton seized a major victory tonight—finally winning a county that shares her name.

The Hill notes that after losing eight Clinton counties so far in the Democratic presidential primary, the former secretary of state took Kentucky’s Clinton County with roughly 58 percent of the vote. That sounds like a decent percentage, but it’s not quite as impressive when you consider only about 240 people voted there.

Still, it must be an amusing win for Clinton, even if none of the counties appear connected to her or her family personally. CNN explains the name-sharing:

Most of the counties are named for DeWitt Clinton, the seventh governor of New York and man behind the Erie Canal, not Hillary or Bill Clinton. Clinton counties in New York and Ohio are named for George Clinton, a founding father and the fourth vice president of the United States, not the funk master.

Team Sanders has gotten a lot of criticism from Democrats about the hostile behavior of its campaign supporters at the Nevada Democratic convention this weekend. Sanders fans are up in arms over the results of the convention, where Clinton emerged with a delegate lead, and continue to protest what they say was evidence of a rigged system at work.

But Team Sanders isn’t backing down. In an interview on CNN, the campaign manager Jeff Weaver reiterated that the campaign does not condone violence or threats, but nevertheless described the convention as unfair, a stand that is likely to ensure the furor won’t die down. “This happens all the time where you have people on the fringes who are not part of the campaign who are just supporters who act irresponsibly and unacceptably, and that happens and we condemn that,” Weaver said, before adding,“That does not excuse the fact that the Democratic party in Nevada operated their convention in a way that was unfair and against the very rules that they put out.”

When asked whether what happened in Nevada portends trouble ahead for Democrats at their national convention this summer, Weaver suggested it does not. “There’s not going to be any violence in Philadelphia,” Weaver said, “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.”

With more than 60 percent of the vote in, Clinton has a commanding lead in Kentucky's Jefferson County, home to Louisville, and Fayette County, which includes Lexington. But she's still fighting with Sanders over the state's rural regions. As expected, Sanders is sweeping east Kentucky, which allies culturally with West Virginia and Appalachia. The results are more mixed in the state's center and west, where in many counties it's still a coin toss whether the votes will fall in favor of Vermont senator or his New York rival. The two are currently within a tenth of a percentage point of each other—but betting markets have already picked Clinton, estimating an 85 percent chance of success.

More on Lexington Mayor Jim Gray: The executive, who’s in his second term and serves as chairman of his family’s construction company, competed against five others for the Democratic nomination. As Emma said, he faces potentially long odds: Dems haven’t won a Senate election in Kentucky, also home to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, since the early 1990s. Just one member of the state's congressional delegation is a Democrat.

When Gray filed to run in January, a spokesman for  the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Gray had been “convinced ... to take one for the team,” and noted that “Democrats [had] been desperate to find a warm body to run for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat.”

At the time, Gray didn’t seem poised to run a campaign in national Democrats’ image, though. He said he doesn't always agree with the president, who’s deeply unpopular in the state, and quipped that he could show Hillary Clinton “how Washington can learn from Kentucky.”  We’ll see if he runs far away from Obama, Clinton, and their ilk in the months ahead.

This presidential primary represents the triumph of the New Yorkers. Not since the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants ruled the world have three contestants from the Big Apple proven so successful.

But there are other ways to slice it, too. The contest in Kentucky pits a senator from a largely rural state against the former first lady of a nearby southern state. Or maybe it’s a politician with decades of deep ties to the African American community vying against a senator with few black constituents. Or a bold idealist who appeals to younger voters and independents, facing off against an experienced, pragmatic leader favored by the party faithful.

However you look at it, though, there’s no avoiding the fact that the Democratic primary electorate remains deeply divided. As early votes roll in, it’s clear that the neither candidate will score the decisive victory each so desperately craves. Sanders supporters still cling to the forlorn, improbable hope that he can rack up wins that will convince delegates to defect to his cause—or at least, show enough strength to shift the party in his direction.

For Clinton, the results will prove even more frustrating. There’s no real question, at this point, that she’ll have the delegates to claim the nomination on the first ballot. But even so, Democratic voters aren’t closing ranks around their presumptive nominee. That’s not to say they won’t rally to her standard come November, but it does signal some real, and lasting, divisions within the Democratic Party itself. This race has laid them bare, and they don’t seem likely to heal anytime soon.

Looks like Rand Paul knows who his Senate challenger will be come November. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the city’s mayor, Jim Gray, easily won the Democratic primary for the seat. He seems unlikely to unseat Paul, even though he’s raised slightly more money than his opponent. As the paper writes, “Republicans won all but two statewide offices in 2015. The state is becoming more conservative. Lexington leans liberal.”

Gray is also openly gay, hoping to serve a state that caught national attention last fall for the legal back-and-forth over Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk who was jailed for refusing to sign same-sex wedding certificates and arguably obstructing the ceremonies.

The polls just closed in Kentucky’s Democratic primary. It’s too early to conclude much, but for now Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders appear locked in an extremely close race.

After Sanders won victories in Indiana and West Virginia in recent weeks, Team Clinton had been eyeing Kentucky as a potential opportunity to put a halt to his momentum. Clinton has been campaigning hard in the state where she beat her then-primary opponent Barack Obama in 2008.

If she loses the state, it will raise further questions about why Clinton hasn’t been able to lock up the nomination, despite the fact that she has far holds a commanding delegate lead over Sanders. It will also make it all the more difficult for Clinton to pivot to a general election campaign against the GOP’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump.

If you’re getting deja vu watching news from Kentucky, recall that Republicans have already voted for their presidential pick. The state GOP held a caucus in March, largely to accommodate Rand Paul, who had planned to simultaneously run for president and reelection as Kentucky’s junior senator. That would have been a violation of state law, which prohibits candidates from appearing twice on the ballot in the same election. The four U.S. congressional seats, 14 state House districts, and four state Senate districts still on the ballot will probably see less interest from voters than if they were capped with a presidential contest. Paul’s Senate seat is also on the ballot.

As results from Kentucky start coming in, a shout-out to those in the state who may have had among the hardest time getting to a polling station. Way on its western end, the Bluegrass State is home to an exclave, alternately called Bubbleland and the Kentucky Bend. An exclave is a piece of land that doesn’t physically touch the political entity it’s part of. Thanks to a kink in the Mississippi River, this little nub of Kentucky land is only bordered by water and a little bit of Tennessee. See:

Google Maps

According to Ken Jennings, who apparently toured there once, residents have to vote in Hickman, Kentucky, 40 miles away. He notes:

Not too many people find their way to Bubbleland these days—according to locals, the most notable visitors are escaped convicts from the prison in Tiptonville, [Tennessee,] hoping to flee north across the Mississippi. They don’t realize that, crossing the mile-wide neck of Bubbleland, they’ve only found a dead end.

Don't expect to see reports of long lines at Oregon polls tonight. The enlightened state actually mails residents their ballots, along with security envelopes, and directs them to mail the paperwork back or deposit it at a drop-off box. This system has allowed Oregon to post record turnout figures: More than 80 percent of state voters cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election, compared to around 60 percent nationally.

This year could break records. More people than ever have registered to vote in Oregon, thanks in part to the state’s new automatic-registration system, which signs up residents who apply for a state driver’s license or ID card. But there’s a catch: Voters registered under the new program still have to file paperwork to register with a political party, a step many miss. That means as many as three-quarters of the 52,000 new voters likely won’t be able to cast a ballot this time around, according to the AP.

It’s not just Democrats voting today in Oregon—Republicans are also headed to the polls. They can still pull the lever for Ted Cruz or John Kasich, but at this point, they’re left to ratify the election of Donald Trump by voters in states where elections fell earlier in the calendar cycle.

The great hope of the NeverTrump forces for a long time was that a deadlocked convention might turn to House Speaker Paul Ryan. Now, the convention won’t be deadlocked—and even if it were, Ryan’s already counted himself out of the running. That decision makes a little more sense in light of a NBC News / SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking poll out this afternoon, which asked Republican voters who they favored more to lead the Republican Party. They went for Trump over Ryan, by 58 to 39 percent.

There are three ways to read those numbers. They might be a quirk of the online survey’s methodology. They may just reflect the tendency of partisans to consolidate around their nominee, something that’s been apparent in other recent surveys. But they can also be seen as a final ratification that the GOP really is Trump’s party.

Trump didn’t win a majority of the votes in many states. His opponents pointed to the weaknesses of other candidates, and to the fractured field, to explain his success. But Ryan is as popular a figure as the national party possesses, acceptable to virtually every faction. In the survey, Trump topped him by roughly equal margins among strong conservatives, conservatives, and moderates. There are any number of theories to account for the rise of Trump. But the simplest one—and the one which this survey suggests is true—is that Republican voters selected the nominee they actually prefer.

Tensions are running high between Clinton and Sanders supporters in the wake of Nevada’s chaotic state Democratic convention over the weekend. Clinton edged out Sanders in the competition for delegates. Sanders supporters, meanwhile, protested what they saw as an unfair result, and have subsequently gone so far as to threaten the state chairwoman with physical violence.

Fallout from the event continued on Tuesday. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz called on both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns to denounce “the type of behavior on display over the weekend in Las Vegas.” Sanders heeded that call later in the day, though he struck a defiant tone.

“There have been a number of criticisms made against my campaign organization,” Sanders said. “Party leaders in Nevada, for example, claim that the Sanders campaign has a ‘penchant for violence.’ That is nonsense.”

“It goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals,” he added.

What happened in Nevada could be a harbinger of what’s to come at the Democratic National Convention this summer. For now, it’s another reminder that Democratic party unity might not be easy to achieve.  

West Virginia, Kentucky’s neighbor to the east, was a Bernie Sanders blowout. The Vermont senator carried every single county—quite embarrassing for Hillary Clinton, who beat Barack Obama there in 2008 by a two-to-one margin.

Kentucky could be different. Yes, it’s an Appalachian state whose eastern counties are heavily dependent on mining, like West Virginia. And nearly ninety percent of its population is white, another advantage to Sanders. But it’s also home to Lexington and Louisville, two decent-sized cities with sizable black communities, a bloc that has heretofore favored Clinton. The former secretary of state performed well there in 2008, winning 66 percent of the vote and every rural county. And two months ago—one of the last times Kentucky was polled—Clinton led Sanders, 43 to 38.

That said, in the same poll, a fifth of Democratic voters said they hadn't yet made up their minds. Much has changed since then, and with Trump’s impending nomination, the stakes are higher. It'll be interesting to see which candidate the new terrain favors.

Math is hard. There are 55 delegates up for grabs in Kentucky's Democratic primary today, along with five “unpledged” delegates, who can vote for whomever they choose. Alas—this does not, as The New York Times, CNN, and others are reporting, add up to 61.

The culprit seems to be a July 2015 run-down from the Kentucky Democratic Party of delegate allocation, which says the state has 61 total delegates. But that's wrong, said Daniel Lowry, the state party’s director of communications. The Bluegrass State will send 60 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

It turns out the mischievous 61 wasn’t just a rounding error. That total counts the governor, Lowry said, who was still a Democrat—Steve Beshear—when the original party calculations were made. But when November came, the Republican Matt Bevin defeated his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway. That means Kentucky Democrats will have one fewer representative in Philadelphia this summer than some outlets are reporting.