Hillary Clinton squeaked out a narrow win over Bernie Sanders Tuesday in the Democratic presidential primary in Kentucky, a state she had won overwhelmingly in 2008 against Barack Obama.
With 99.7 percent of the precincts counted, Clinton led by about 1,800 votes.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' office said at 10:30 p.m. that 769 votes in two precincts in Jefferson County had not yet been counted.
Even if Sanders captured all those votes, he could not catch up with Clinton, Grimes’ office said.
It declared Clinton the "unofficial" winner in Kentucky.
The office also said Sanders has until next Tuesday to ask for a recanvass in the state. The statewide votes will be certified at a meeting later this month of the State Board of Elections.
But the Associated Press, noting that the margin between the two candidates was less than one-half of 1 percent, declared the race “too close to call.”
The tight margin means that the two will split the state’s delegates fairly evenly. With 55 delegates at stake, Clinton and Sanders will each pick up at least 25. Five delegates remain to be allocated, pending final vote tallies.
“They’re going to split the delegates pretty evenly,” said Steven Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. “It’s not a game changer.”
Clinton won the state’s largest population centers, Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky, while Sanders won most of the rural counties across the state.
Sanders also carried Kentucky’s two biggest coal-producing counties: Pike in the east and Union in the west, by 29 percentage points and 19 percentage points, respectively.
With her victory in Kentucky, Clinton broke a winning streak by Sanders that included two neighboring states in the past two weeks: West Virginia and Indiana.
Voss said a Clinton win might give her good headlines the next day, but would do little to alter the trajectory of a race where she leads in delegates.
“This was a wash,” he said. “It was a state Clinton should have won, but she made some impolitic comments about coal that almost cost her the state.”
Speaking in Ohio in March about her $30 billion plan to help distressed coal communities, Clinton created controversy when she said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”
Clinton has said her remarks were taken out of context.
In 2008, Clinton beat Obama in Kentucky by 65 percentage points, and won 118 of the state’s 120 counties, but eight years later she struggled against Sanders in some of the same places where she won overwhelmingly before.
The state’s closed primary was thought to favor to Clinton: Unlike neighboring West Virginia, where independents and Republicans pushed Sanders to victory last week, only registered Democrats could vote in Kentucky’s primary.
Clinton’s recent comments about the coal industry struck a nerve in the coalfields of Eastern and Western Kentucky, where she lost decisively to Sanders.
Still, she was leading in the state’s largest population centers, Jefferson and Fayette counties, as well as Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in Northern Kentucky. Black voters have been key to Clinton’s primary strength against Sanders, and they are more concentrated in Kentucky’s largest cities, Louisville and Lexington.
Sanders, meanwhile, drubbed Clinton in the largely white rural counties of Eastern, Central and Western Kentucky — a pattern that resembled Clinton’s defeat in West Virginia last week.
Though he won in several counties that include college towns — Madison, Rowan, Warren, Calloway and Marshall — Sanders lost Fayette County, home to the University of Kentucky, by 8 percentage points. Much like Obama in 2008, Sanders has attracted significant support from younger voters.
But with the semester over at Kentucky’s largest public universities, the youth vote may not have turned out for Sanders.
Clinton had trailed Sanders in early returns, but by 8:30 p.m. EDT, she led Sanders by more than 4,000 votes after a counting malfunction in Fayette County was resolved, and thousands of Lexington votes were added to the total.
Then, by 9 p.m., Sanders retook the lead, with only a few hundred votes separating the candidates statewide. Many of the precincts still to be counted were in Jefferson, the state’s most populous. As the Jefferson votes came in, Clinton retook the lead.
Regardless of the outcome in Kentucky, Clinton is well on her way to clinching the 2,240 delegates she needs to get her party’s nomination and face Republican Donald Trump in the fall.
Clinton visited Kentucky multiple times. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned for her in Kentucky as well. He was the last Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election.
The Clintons have close ties to the Kentucky Democratic Party. Former state party chairman Jerry Lundergan is a family friend. Former Gov. Steve Beshear endorsed Clinton over Sanders last week.
Before Tuesday, Clinton had 2,240 delegates of the 2,383 she’ll need to get the nomination at the July convention in Philadelphia. Though Sanders was expected to win Tuesday’s primary in Oregon, he began the day with 1,473 delegates and has little chance of closing the gap with Clinton.
Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump won Kentucky’s Republican caucus in March with 36 percent of the vote.
Mac Brown, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, said the party was looking forward to November.
“Kentucky Republicans are excited and engaged like never before and are ready to unify as a party to deny the Obama-Clinton agenda a third term in the White House,” he said in a statement. “Our state cannot stand four more years of job killing regulations and government overreach.”
Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis
Roque Rocky De La Fuente
Martin J. O’Malley
Bernard “Bernie” Sanders
99% precincts reporting