WASHINGTON (AP) – Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton sought to avoid primary losses in Kentucky and Oregon on Tuesday, aiming to blunt the momentum of challenger Bernie Sanders ahead of a likely general election matchup against Republican Donald Trump.
Clinton enters Tuesday’s primaries with a commanding lead of nearly 300 pledged delegates over Sanders and a dominant advantage among party officials and elected leaders called superdelegates. She remains on track to clinch the nomination against the Vermont senator in early June but is trying to avoid a trail of primary defeats that could expose weaknesses before she takes on Trump.
Democrats were holding primaries in Kentucky and Oregon as new questions over party unity emerged in the contest between Clinton and Sanders after a divisive weekend state party convention in Nevada put a spotlight on relations between the two sides. During a party event in Las Vegas, supporters of Sanders tossed chairs and made death threats against the Nevada party chairwoman arguing the party leadership rigged the results of the convention in favor of Clinton.
In a sign of the tensions, Sanders issued a defiant statement dismissing complaints from Nevada Democrats as “nonsense” and said his supporters were not being treated with “fairness and respect.”
Trump was competing in the sole GOP contest in Oregon, unopposed as he was poised to pad his lock on the Republican nomination. The billionaire businessman picked up nine delegates on Tuesday in Guam, which held its territorial convention in March, and had 1,143 delegates heading into the Oregon contest, fewer than 100 delegates short of the 1,237 he needs to clinch the nomination.
In Kentucky, the former secretary of state visited black churches, a small-town diner and held rallies on Sunday and Monday in an effort to break up Sanders’ momentum after his recent victories in Indiana and West Virginia.
Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, was the last Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election – he won Kentucky in 1992 and 1996 – and the former first lady tried to emphasize those ties in the days leading up to the primary.
Clinton was joined by prominent Democrats like former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, and she pointed to the state’s economic progress during her husband’s two terms in the White House.
“I’m excited about the primary but we’ve got to turn a lot of people out,” Clinton told a packed diner in Paducah, Ky., on Monday. “I’ll tell you this. I’m not going to give up on Kentucky in November. I want to help to bring back the kind of economy that worked for everybody in the 1990s.”
Sanders was favored in Oregon, which is among the nation’s most progressive states and the home to one of the senator’s largest rallies of his campaign last year in Portland. In a sign of his strength, Sanders secured the endorsement of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., in April.
Nearing the end of a long primary slog, the two Democratic candidates are preparing for June 7 primaries in California, the nation’s largest state, New Jersey and four other states. When pledged delegates and superdelegates are combined, Clinton is about 94 percent of the way toward securing the Democratic nomination and is expected to lock it down by June 7.
Sanders has vowed to campaign through the end of the primary season on June 14 in the District of Columbia and amass as many delegates as possible to influence the party’s platform and message. He is still aiming to wrestle the nomination from Clinton even though he would need to win about two-thirds of the remaining pledged delegates to end the primary season in a tie.
The Vermont senator campaigned Monday and Tuesday in Puerto Rico, which holds its contest on June 5, and was holding a rally in the Los Angeles area late Tuesday.