Through most of the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has been seen as the Democratic contender who appeals to Democrats. Bernie Sanders might attract independents in open-primary states, and political newcomers in most states, but Clinton, we’ve been told, is the candidate of the party faithful. That did not turn out to be the case in rural Kentucky, however.
In what has been characterized as the most consistently Democratic county in the United States—Elliott County in eastern Kentucky—Sanders was an easy winner Tuesday night. The strength Sanders showed in the historically Democratic counties of eastern Kentucky helped him to hold Clinton to a virtual tie in the Bluegrass State. With 99 percent of the ballots counted Wednesday morning, Clinton was clinging to a 1,923 lead out of more than 400,000 votes cast statewide and the candidates split the elected delegates 28-27. On a night when Sanders easily won Oregon, Clinton had hoped for a big win in Kentucky, a state where she beat Barack Obama by a 65-30 margin in 2008.
It didn’t work out that way.
This time, Clinton could not hold rural counties that she won handily in 2008 and that Bill Clinton won as he was carrying the state in 1992 and 1996. That’s not necessarily a crisis for Clinton; she is building new coalitions that reflect the changing demographics of the United States. But Clinton, to her immense credit, has talked about looking beyond traditional battleground states in the fall in hopes of adding more states to the Democratic map. And as she campaigned on the eve of Tuesday’s primary, Clinton promised Kentuckians, “I’m not going to give up on Kentucky in November.”
If she is serious about that promise, Clinton should consider the results from eastern Kentucky. A strong signal was sent on Tuesday about what it takes to keep the old-school, New Deal voters of traditionally Democratic rural counties in the coalition. It’s not some centrist triangulation on economic issues. It’s a recognition of the lingering appeal of progressive populism.
Elliott County is emblematic of the challenges, and the opportunities, that Clinton faces as the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination. The county has voted Democratic in each presidential election since it was formed in the mid-19th century. “The majority of Elliott’s 8,000 residents have cast their ballots for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since the county was incorporated in 1869—the longest continuous stretch of any county in the United States,” noted a Huffington Post profile of the county published several years ago.