The last time Senator Dianne Feinstein faced a serious reelection challenge, it came in the form of an obscure Republican congressmember from Santa Barbara named Michael Huffington.
It was 1994, a year when a big confab on the potential of the newfangled World Wide Web convened in California, O.J. tried escaping in a white Bronco, and GOP Governor Pete Wilson coasted to a new term, aided by the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187.
Today, we’re forever online via smart phones, a reality-TV star inhabits the White House, and a Democratic governor has proclaimed California a “sanctuary state” for immigrants.
About the only thing that hasn’t changed is Feinstein.
At 84, she remains the same old-school U.S. senator who values compromise, statesmanship, and the effectiveness of working across the aisle, a political style some fellow Democrats find abhorrent in facing the existential threat of Donald Trump.
“It’s time for new leadership,” said Hannah-Beth Jackson.
Last Sunday, Jackson endorsed State Senate President Kevin de León’s internecine challenge to Feinstein, moments after her Democratic colleague announced it.
“This country has moved away from dialogue,” Jackson told us. “I understand she’s trying to work with this guy, but you can’t work with a lunatic.”
What’s the beef? De León’s candidacy portends a costly intraparty battle in the June 2018 primary, for a safe Dem seat in a deep-blue state at a time when senior Democrats urge donors to invest in crucial midterm contests elsewhere.
“We just have two very different world perspectives,” he told political writer Joe Garofoli. “The state has changed significantly over the past 25 years, and we’re overdue for a real debate on the issues.”
Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s chief strategist, framed the contest bluntly: “What exactly is he gonna do that she can’t do?”
De León, however, appeals to liberals who view California as ground zero of the Trump resistance and express frustration at Feinstein’s less-than-fiery, work-within-the-system opposition to America’s 46 percent 45th president.
(It’s worth nothing that de León has some history in Santa Barbara, where back in the ’90s he ran a storefront immigrant-rights legal clinic on Milpas Street and demonstrated early skill in generating publicity for himself. A story for another day — now back to our regularly scheduled program.)
Although Feinstein forcefully opposed the critical nominations of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, she also voted to confirm about half of Trump’s Cabinet appointments.
Not hesitant to criticize Trump, she badly blundered before a liberal audience last month, however, when she said that he “has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”
De León promptly picked up the comment, claiming it as a rationale for his candidacy.
Three takeaways. Some key factors shaping the race:
1. Governance Versus Protest. Amid tribal polarization in Washington, Feinstein is a reliable Democratic vote but also maintains the centrist MO that has been her trademark since her start in the ’60s; some progressives demand a senator focused more on fighting and less on legislating, as Trump, white nationalists, and radical Republicans bitterly divide the U.S.
2. Old Versus New. 84, Feinstein is older than her hometown Golden Gate Bridge; at 50, de León represents a generation of Democrats whose ambitions have been bottled up by the longevity of old incumbents, also including Jerry Brown, Nancy Pelosi, and Barbara Boxer. Termed out, de León will cast the race as change versus more of the same.
3. The Jungle Primary. De León’s play will be to finish at least second in the June 7 open primary (top two finishers advance to runoff, regardless of party) and then fight Feinstein one-on-one in traditional left-vs.-center Democratic brawl. Trying to rally Bernie Sanders supporters (NB: De León backed Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016 and over Obama in 2008), Latinos, and lefty activists, he’ll emphasize single-payer health care, immigration, and climate change.
It’s tricky political terrain; Feinstein is hardly a conservative on any of de León’s issues, and he will struggle against her appeal to registered independents; if Republicans find a credible Senate candidate, de León could finish out of the money.
Only 229 shopping days until the primary!