The day after Donald Trump was elected president last year, California Senate President Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon issued a defiant statement of moral purpose. “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land, because yesterday Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California,” they wrote. “California is—and must always be—a refuge of justice and opportunity for people of all walks, talks, ages and aspirations—regardless of how you look, where you live, what language you speak, or who you love.”
Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the progressive blog Daily Kos, was so taken with the statement that he read it aloud to his children—“to show them how lucky they were to live in California.” Moulitsas sensed a “dream candidate” in de León, and was among the progressive activists who urged the 50-year-old Angeleno to challenge longtime Senator Dianne Feinstein, an 84-year-old incumbent with a moderate voting record, in the 2018 midterm elections. Feinstein, meanwhile, has been practically begging to be primaried: This August, she urged “patience” with Trump, even saying “he can be a good president” if he can “learn and change.” Last week, de León heeded progressives’ call by announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
In the days since, a debate has raged among Democrats about the risks and rewards of a primary challenge against a safe, reliable blue-state senator at time when the party is fully out of power. The Sacramento Bee reported that “California Democratic stalwarts are growing increasingly worried” about de León’s bid, specifically “about a nasty personal feud that exposes deepening rifts and saps resources from their efforts to win Senate and House races across the country.” A slew of politicos used words like “distraction” and “diversion,” warning about “a world of finite political resources.” “In many ways, I find it selfish,” former Senator Barbara Boxer told Roll Call on Monday. “I don’t think it’s time for an intraparty squabble.”
Bill Scher, a contributing editor at Politico Magazine, sees a bigger risk: the progressive equivalent of Steve Bannon’s mission to purge Republican senators. “Bannon and his allies want to remake the Republican Party into a vehicle of economic nationalism,” he wrote. “Progressive activists want a Democratic Party that more closely resembles Bernie Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism.” Progressive activists surely want a more leftist Democratic Party, but that doesn’t mean they intend to adopt Bannonite tactics to accomplish it. Justice Democrats, a group founded by The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur and former staffers of Sanders’s presidential campaign, is perhaps the most insurgent in this respect: According to spokesman Corbin Trent, the group plans to support more than two dozen primary challengers—but not de León. Trent criticized de León for his early reluctance to attack Feinstein directly, and said Justice Democrats would support its founder, Uygur, if he joins the race.
But other national progressives who support de León insist there isn’t a grand scheme afoot to primary incumbents. “There is no purge happening,” Democracy for America spokesman Neil Sroka told me emphatically. “Literally Steve Bannon’s approach is to primary all of the candidates other than the Zodiac Killer,” a reference to Senator Ted Cruz. Sroka wouldn’t rule out getting involved in other primaries, but said his group has no plans at the moment. “As loathsome as Joe Manchin, the [Democratic] senator from West Virginia, might be,” he said, “we haven’t endorsed a challenger in that race.” Moulitsas is adamant, too. “There’s nobody else I’m particularly motivated to see primaried,” he said. “We’re not expecting perfection.” (The Daily Kos has already endorsed a primary challenge to Congressman Dan Lipinski in Illinois; the group is presently going through its official endorsement process for de León.)
Rather than a harbinger of a purge, Feinstein is a special case because her politics have become so out of step with her constituents and even Democrats nationally. “I support Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris, and I don’t support Dianne Feinstein,” said Congressman Ro Khanna, a fellow California Democrat who has been advocating for a Feinstein challenge. “I think there are very specific reasons that a primary challenge to Diane Feinstein in California is called for.”
Scher elaborated on his Politico story in a Bloggingheads video where he emphasized Feinstein’s age—“she’s literally the oldest person in the Senate”—and the likelihood that she would opt to retire relatively soon after being re-elected anyway, paving the way for a more progressive replacement. “You know, maybe she’ll make it to 90,” he said. “There are a couple of examples of senators who have gone beyond that. But chances are she’s not going to serve out that term. Just wait a few years. She is from a different generation. Most likely, in California, that next senator will be more liberal. Just chill out and let it happen.” Scher said the “the rush is people are trying to exert their influence and show it is dangerous to cross these progressive lines.”
That last point is certainly true. Moulitsas describes the Feinstein challenge as partly “a behavior modification tool” to show other Democratic officials the danger of losing touch with their base. But Scher argued that primaries can harm progressives, since failed challenges sometimes have the effect of “severing the incumbent from the party’s ideological base and making it easier for him or her to break party ranks.” He cited Joe Lieberman as a cautionary tale, noting how the Connecticut senator lost the 2006 Democratic primary to Ned Lamont but ultimately won re-election as an independent. One of the “consequences of the failed Lieberman purge,” Scher wrote, was that “the ideologically untethered senator killed the last-ditch progressive push for a form of ‘public option’ in the Affordable Care Act. Even though he once supported allowing people to buy into Medicare at age 55, he suddenly lost interest once his nemeses of the left clamored for it.”
Sroka has a different explanation for Lieberman’s behavior. “Lieberman was a prick long before his primary challenge,” he said. “He just kept being a prick afterwords.” Lamont’s challenge also sent a message to Democrats, incumbents and candidates alike. “That was the last time any Democrat ran on a pro-war platform,” Moulitsas said. Sroka added, “It’s hard to say [Connecticut Senator] Chris Murphy would have been the same candidate if he hadn’t seen the strong primary challenge to Joe Lieberman.” He believes de León can play a similar part.
And as Lieberman example illustrates well, there are some Democrats, particularly in blue states, whose sins against liberalism are too egregious to be ignored. As Splinter’s Emma Roller noted in a plea for Feinstein to retire, the senator opposes single-payer health care and has a troubling record on civil liberties. “You have nearly always supported the expansion of the security state at the expense of privacy rights,” she wrote. “Let’s face it: You are a hawkish, centrist Democrat in a state full of voters that have become much more liberal than you have shown yourself to be. Perhaps now would be a great time to retire and make way for a candidate who better reflects the views of your constituents?”
The American Prospect’s executive editor Harold Meyerson was even harsher in his analysis of Feinstein earlier this month. “In her 25 years in the Senate, she has always stood well to the right of the Golden State’s other elected Democrats, not to mention its Democratic voters,” he wrote, citing her longtime support for the death penalty and “persistent right turns on a number of landmark votes have marked her as the most conservative Democratic senator from a solidly blue state.” Feinstein voted for President George W. Bush’s Iraq war and tax cuts for the rich.
Feinstein’s record isn’t as lousy as Lieberman’s was. “You’ve been a longtime advocate on abortion rights,” Roller wrote. “You introduced the assault weapons ban. You fought hard for the public release of the CIA’s Torture report. These are all accomplishments to be proud of.” Meyerson acknowledged, “Feinstein has been a stalwart defender of women’s rights, civil rights, and the environment, and a leading advocate of greater gun control.” She’s also a pathbreaking woman in politics and a California institution, which is why she’s the overwhelming favorite in this race—that, and the clear support of California’s Democratic establishment. Even Moulitsas said that de León’s chance of victory is “very, very small.”
Scher argues the left shouldn’t waste its money by challenging her. “By encouraging progressives across the country to donate to de Leon, Daily Kos, Democracy for America and possibly others are directing resources away from the the swing states and districts that will determine control of Congress, toward the money pit of California. And with the 2018 map skewed against Democrats, every dollar counts,” he wrote.
“That argument is utter bullshit,” Sroka said. It’s “built on a fundamental disrespect for grassroots doors” by “a bunch of Democratic fundraisers who think they are owed the contributions of the grassroots no matter what candidates stand for.” He added, “It tends to think of money and fundraising as zero-sum game. It isn’t zero-sum.... That means sometimes they’re going to dig a little bit deeper to support a Kevin de León as well as supporting their local congressman who they may not agree with on everything but know needs to defeat a Republican.”
De León’s supporters also say his challenge, even if ultimately unsuccessful, could help defeat down-ballot Republicans. His campaign could energize progressives, driving up statewide Democratic turnout. Moreover, California holds open primaries: the top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. That is, Feinstein and de León could face off twice. “It’s a Republican’s worst nightmare,” Moulitsas said, as so far no Republican gubernatorial hopeful has emerged. And if a Republican senate candidate isn’t on the ballot, that will depress GOP turnout across the state.
Scher entertained this argument, but countered that “recruiting good House candidates and then stumping for them would be a more straightforward strategy.” But as Sorka noted, “There is not a single chance that a Republican will replace a Democrat in the United States Senate” from California. So the risk of a primary challenge is low: The worst-case scenario is that Feinstein serves another term. The reward, meanwhile, is that it will mobilize the Trump resistance and fuel the necessary debate about the Democratic Party’s core values. No less an establishment figure than Nancy Pelosi is sanguine about de León’s challenge. “People running against each other for office? That’s a democracy. That is not called a division,” the House minority leader said last week. “It might divert resources, but it channels energy. And at the end of the day, we will have a Democratic senator.”