Hillary Clinton’s claim of a narrow victory in Kentucky and Bernie Sanders’s win in Oregon illustrated a deepening rift among Democrats with the potential to hobble the party heading into the general election.
The split outcome in Tuesday’s primaries gives Clinton little leverage to push Sanders to unify his supporters behind her in preparation for an expected campaign against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who is using the extended primary contest to attack Clinton’s standing with her own party.
Sanders showed no intention of dialing back his fight against Clinton or urging his supporters to fall in line. His spokesman said Sanders is considering seeking a recount in Kentucky, where Clinton was clinging to a lead of a half percentage point.
“We are in until the last ballot is cast,” Sanders told supporters at a rally in Carson, California, saying he believes he can win the June 7 primary in the nation’s most populous state. “We have the possibility — it will be a steep climb, I recognize that — but we have the possibility of going to Philadelphia with the majority of the pledged delegates,” Sanders said of the July nominating convention. He said in early general election poll match-ups he does “much better against Trump” than Clinton.
With her lead in the nomination race all-but insurmountable, Clinton and party leaders had been looking to take advantage of a split in the Republican Party over Trump that has been opening since the start of the primary campaign. Instead, they’re dealing with their own divisions. That was illustrated with an eruption by Sanders’s supporters during last weekend’s state party convention in Nevada.
Some Sanders backers threw chairs and shouted down speakers during the convention, at which Clinton was awarded a majority of delegates, in a dispute over rules. The chairwoman of the Nevada Democratic Party was subjected to threatening messages on her voicemail.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said Tuesday he spoke to Sanders about the incidents and that he was confident the Vermont senator would speak out against violence by his supporters. He called it a “test of leadership.”
Sanders responded with a statement saying that Democratic leaders must “understand that the political world is changing and that millions of Americans are outraged” at the political and economic establishment.
“It is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness and the respect that they have earned” if Democrats are to win in November, Sanders said, adding that “it goes without saying that I condemn” any violence or personal harassment.
Later, at his rally in California, Sanders suggested there would be consequences for Democratic Party leaders if they don’t change its rules to expand participation for independents and newcomers.
“Open the doors; let the people in,” Sanders said, after supporters booed the mention of the Democratic Party. He added that, “Before we will have the opportunity to defeat Donald Trump we’re going to have to defeat Secretary Clinton.”
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told CNN on Tuesday night that Sanders’s response “added more fuel to the fire.”
The Nevada state Democratic Party said in a statement that the Sanders campaign was being “dishonest about what happened Saturday and is failing to adequately denounce the threats of violence of his supporters.”
“We believe, unfortunately, that the tactics and behavior on display here in Nevada are harbingers of things to come as Democrats gather in Philadelphia in July for our National Convention,” the state party’s lawyer wrote in a formal complaint to the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats, including some of Sanders’s Senate colleagues, piled up complaints and admonitions to allow Clinton to concentrate on a general election fight against Trump.
“He needs to tell whoever is conducting this violence that it is completely anathema to his own values, that he calls on them to stop it, that it’s anathema to our party’s values and to our country’s values, and I hope that he will,” said Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Clinton supporter. “A primary can be a very good thing but at the end of the day there is a winner, and then it is really important for people to pull together, because the stakes are existential in November to virtually every value that Bernie Sanders cares about.”
Echo of 2008
The Clinton campaign can take comfort in some of the patterns that played out in Barack Obama’s win over her in the 2008 nomination race. That year, Senator John McCain had the Republican nomination locked down by March while Clinton kept Obama fighting in the primaries until June. She won most of those last contests, but Obama went on to win the nomination and the presidency. But Clinton’s position in the Democratic establishment gave her a clearer imperative to unify the party in 2008 than Sanders has in his outsider role.
Sanders has been on a winning streak lately, taking 11 of the last 19 contests. But Clinton’s early wins in larger states and advantage with Democratic superdelegates have made it mathematically near-impossible for Sanders to catch up to her in the delegate count.
While Kentucky isn’t likely to be a swing state in November, problems there for Clinton may foreshadow difficulties in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Any additional wins for Sanders, meanwhile, give him more standing to demand concessions from the party, in order to bring over his supporters even if he cannot secure the nomination.
“The question now for a few weeks has been what does Sanders really want,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “While Clinton has pretty handily won this nomination she does need his voters. They’d have to give Sanders something that inspires his supporters for lack of a better word.”