Obama struggles in Kentucky, Arkansas primaries

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - Voters registered a strong protest against President Barack Obama in Democratic primaries in solidly Republican Kentucky and Arkansas, while Republican Mitt Romney easily captured both states, according to unofficial election returns.

U.S. President Barack Obama leans forward from his seat to look at graduates as the choir sings at the 2012 Joplin High School commencement ceremony inside the Leggett and Plant Athletic Center at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri, May 21, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

West Virginia this month also waged a similar protest against the president, giving a prison inmate in Texas nearly 43 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

The outcome in all three - even though Obama won - was an apparent sign of voter dissatisfaction with his first term. But it was largely symbolic because he faces no real opposition from other Democratic contenders in his effort to win a second term in November.

Kentucky and Arkansas are being counted as probable wins for the Republican presidential candidate.

“Many conservatives still participate in Democratic primaries in the South and most of these voters did not vote for the president in 2008 and will not vote for him this fall,” said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.

In Kentucky, 42 percent of voters in the primary chose “uncommitted” rather than Obama, and in Arkansas an unknown Tennessee lawyer named John Wolfe won 41.6 percent of Democrats.

“Arkansas is a state that is ready-made for a strong protest vote against the president,” said Barth. “This primary just gave them another opportunity to vote against the president.”

Other Republican candidates for president have either stopped campaigning or suspended their campaigns, leaving the path to victory open to Romney.

In Arkansas’ only open U.S. congressional seat, three Democrats and three Republicans vied for their party nomination.

Arkansas Representative Mike Ross, a leader in the “Blue Dog” coalition of conservative and moderate Democrats, announced last year that he would not seek re-election after six terms.

Republican candidate Tom Cotton, who served as an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, won his party’s nomination, according to official results.

On the Democratic side, state Senator Gene Jeffress and attorney Q. Byrum Hurst will face a June run-off as both remained under 50 percent in early returns.

In a closely watched congressional race in Kentucky, a Tea Party-backed candidate, Thomas Massie, won the Republican nomination for an open seat over two more establishment Republican candidates. Massie was endorsed by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of presidential candidate Ron Paul, who has strong Tea Party backing.

Reporting by Suzi Parker in Little Rock and by Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Jackie Frnak