Opinion: Democratic Left Wing Wants to Jettison Influential Sen. Feinstein

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks to the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist

Last weekend, the California Democratic Party’s “executive committee” voted to endorse state Sen. Kevin de León’s longshot bid to unseat Dianne Feinstein, California’s U.S. senator for more than a quarter-century.

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The action says more about the party than it does about Feinstein. It tells us that the party’s political junkie activists are so obsessed with “resistance” to Donald Trump that they are willing to discard one of the Senate’s most senior and influential members.

De León has played the role of resister-in-chief to the hilt, portraying Feinstein as out-of-touch, inferentially too old and insufficiently militant in opposing Trump.

Such gestures endeared him to the party’s most left-wing — or “progressive” in their preferred nomenclature — faction. However, those activists are not ordinary voters, as the June primary election demonstrated.

Feinstein whomped de León by 32 percentage points and he’s still in the running only because of California’s top-two primary election system. Although he got just 12 percent of the vote in June, he topped dozens of other candidates to finish second and gain a spot on the November ballot.

While overall, Feinstein finished with 44 percent of the vote in June, she got an estimated 70 percent support from Democratic voters, which illustrates the yawning gap between Democrats as a whole and the noisy activists on the party’s left wing.

Feinstein’s camp underscored that division in its reaction to the executive committee action.

Dan Walters

“While 217 delegates expressed their view today, Sen. Feinstein won by 2.1 million votes and earned 70 percent of the Democratic vote in the California primary election, carrying every county by double digits over her opponent,” Jeff Millman, Feinstein’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “We are confident that a large majority of California Democrats will vote to re-elect Sen. Feinstein in November.”

Feinstein’s long-time campaign advisor, Bill Carrick, had a pithier reaction.

“They are trying to demonstrate that they have a pulse,” Carrick said of de León’s campaign. “And that’s what it’s all about. They have no opportunity between the primary and Labor Day to get any attention. This is the only game in town. Desperate strokes for desperate folks.”

Predictably, de León sees the endorsement as a big plus, declaring, “Earning the endorsement of so many leaders and activists of the California Democratic Party isn’t just an honor and a privilege; today’s vote is a clear-eyed rejection of politics as usual in Washington, D.C. We have presented Californians with the first real alternative to the worn-out Washington playbook in a quarter-century.”

However, it’s still a steep uphill climb. Not only can Feinstein count on strong support from rank-and-file Democrats, but she has much more campaign money and will have the backing of the state’s business community if she needs it.

There’s a strong element of irony in the Feinstein-de León duel. She apparently had to be talked into running again this year by national Democratic leaders who feared that her retirement would ignite a very expensive primary battle that would drain money away from critical Senate campaigns in other states.

Assuming Feinstein wins another six-year term this year — and the odds are still very much in her favor — it’s entirely possible, even probable, that she will resign at some point. That would allow the next governor, who almost certainly will be Gavin Newsom, to appoint a successor.

Would he give the nod to de León? Not likely, since the two have feuded over which is the true leader of the California resistance to Trump.


CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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