You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Democrats’ Dianne Feinstein Problem

Kevin de León, president of the California Senate, is challenging the longtime senator next year, creating a dilemma for the party's 2020 hopefuls.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 2006, anti-war progressive Ned Lamont defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Lieberman promptly started a “Connecticut for Lieberman” party and ran as its nominee in the general election, creating a headache for Democrats: Should they support a colleague, or a challenger who best represents the political moment? Senators including Barack Obama and Barbara Boxer sided with Lieberman during the primary, then endorsed Lamont in the general election; others stuck with the third-party Lieberman throughout. After defeating Lamont by 114,000 votes and earning a post-election standing ovation from the Democratic caucus, Lieberman became a thorn in the side of liberals for the rest of his tenure.

Ned Lamont, meet Kevin de León.

The 50-year-old president of the California state Senate last week announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate against longtime Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is 84. Like Lieberman, Feinstein occupies the right flank of the Democratic Party, even more so in an era of resistance and progressive resurgence. California’s kooky electoral rules make it likely that Feinstein will face de León in a general election matchup, with similar dynamics to Lieberman vs. Lamont. And every Democrat in the Senate, at a time when they are striving to win back the chamber, will have to answer: Do you support a colleague, or the challenger who best represents the political moment?

De León led the California Senate in a year when practically every political move in the deep-blue state was an act of resistance against Donald Trump. The legislature increased the gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements. They renewed the cap-and-trade system to fight climate change. They made California a sanctuary state, blocking state law enforcement from cooperating with federal authorities on deportation. The Senate passed a single-payer health care bill, which the Assembly then shelved. (A cynic would say de León engineered the passage of a thin bill that he knew the Assembly wouldn’t accept, to burnish his credentials among the progressive base.)

De León isn’t exactly the Bernie Sanders of the West Coast. He endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016, and his candidacy may stem as much from being termed out of the legislature and not having another seat to fill than any burning desire to oust Feinstein. However, de León has a compelling personal story—the child of a low-income, single, immigrant mother, he’s a former student and labor organizer, and would be the state’s first Latino senator in history. Compared to an incumbent who has spent 25 years alternately disappointing and antagonizing liberals, he represents a major step forward.

Feinstein’s political instincts were apparent when she loudly supported the death penalty at the 1990 state party convention, drawing a chorus of boos—which she subsequently used in campaign ads to prove her distance from the liberal base. Perhaps no Democrat in the past two decades has been as committed to expanding the national security state than Feinstein (again, like Lieberman). On domestic policy, she supported the Bush tax cuts, permanent normal trade relations with China, and the bill that repealed Glass-Steagall’s financial reforms. While strong on gun safety, women’s rights and the environment, Feinstein has openly courted the center and rejected the left since coming to Washington. Just this year, she told the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco that Donald Trump could mature into a “good president.”

De León appears to be Feinstein’s first true primary threat since she became a senator. But in California’s election system, all primary candidates appear on the same ballot, regardless of party, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. Because Republicans barely have a pulse in California, Feinstein and de León may well face off in November—just as two Democrats did in the state’s 2016 Senate race. Billionaire Tom Steyer is considering running, but de León’s experience and base in vote-rich southern California makes him more likely to get into the top two. (Also, Steyer and de León are very close, and I don’t see how both run.)

For Feinstein’s Senate colleagues, which include several potential 2020 presidential nominees, that turns this race from an easily parried question (“I’ll support the will of California Democrats”) to a year-long nuisance, if not for longer. De León is clearly closer to where the party has been moving, but Feinstein works with Senate Democrats every day and has probably given money or advice to all of them in the past. Potential 2020 candidates don’t want to anger a chunk of young, energetic supporters by backing Feinstein, but they also don’t want to anger the state party establishment (or its rich donors).

Senator Kamala Harris sent out a fundraising email on Feinstein’s behalf last week. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a dark-horse 2020 hopeful, held a re-election event for Feinstein. Garcetti and Feinstein share a consultant, Bill Carrick, a major fixer in California politics. Carrick will surely try to lock up as many endorsements and big donors as possible early, denying critical oxygen to de León, who’s relatively unknown in a state that doesn’t pay much attention to its legislature. You might even see open threats to potential de León supporters to line up with Feinstein or get effectively blackballed from state politics. And whereas Ned Lamont could meet a large chunk of Connecticut voters in person, that’s impossible in California with its 39 million residents.

Feinstein will also have a formidable war chest and ability to self-fund. Like Lieberman, she’ll have a built-in advantage in a statewide matchup against a challenger to her left; right-leaning independents and Republicans could become a rare swing vote in a general election. If things get close, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Feinstein slam De León for raising the gas tax.

Party stalwarts I’ve spoken to in recent days worry that the attention and money spent on this intraparty fight will crowd out seven winnable House races that are critical to Democrats’ attempt to take back Congress. De León supporters respond that a young Latino challenge at the top of the ticket will draw out voters who don’t normally participate in midterm elections, swamping Republicans statewide.

Neither point has much data behind it. The Lamont-Lieberman fight didn’t stop Democrats from taking back Congress in 2006, including picking up two House seats in Connecticut. Loretta Sanchez ran for Senate in California in 2016 and didn’t even beat Kamala Harris among Latinos; any boost in turnout would be hard to separate from the wave of anti-Trump sentiment in the state.

The more interesting question is how national Democratic leaders respond. Progressives are likely to make the Feinstein–de León race into a litmus test, as well they should. Feinstein is clearly too conservative to represent one of the nation’s most liberal states. If Democrats who want to lead the party end up siding with her, they do so at their peril.