Election 2020

Senate Hopeful Challenging Five-Term Incumbent Feinstein's Liberal Credentials

State Sen. Kevin de Leon addresses supporters during an event held to formally announce his run for U.S. Senate on Oct. 18, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

California Senate Leader Kevin de León (D) told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) not to bother coming home for the holidays if she refused to take a pledge, as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) had, to show support for the DREAM Act by blocking a year-end spending federal spending bill.

“Don’t come back to California if you haven’t demonstrated your leadership and your courage to stand up for these young men and women,” de León said during a December demonstration in favor of the DREAM Act.

“Dreamers make up hundreds of thousands of Sen. Feinstein’s constituents, and while talking a good game on Dreamers, when it comes to standing up and supporting them, she is AWOL,” de León added.

De León is on his way out of Sacramento thanks to term limits. He has his eye on Capitol Hill and wants Feinstein’s job. If recent polling is correct, de León stands a chance of winning it as the result of a left-wing assault on the Democratic Party’s Old Guard.

In an email announcing his campaign, de León said his primary bid was as much about resisting the Trump administration as it was showing a new way to the Democratic Party.

“We now stand at the front lines of a historic struggle for the very soul of America, against a president without one,” he said. “Every day, his administration wages war on our people and our progress. He disregards our voices. Demonizes our diversity. Attacks our civil rights, our clean air, our health access and our public safety.”

A December UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll showed Feinstein to be well ahead of de León, the first Latino to lead the California Senate. But only 41 percent of likely voters supported her, while 27 percent backed de León and 38 percent described themselves as undecided.

“Feinstein’s relatively modest lead is somewhat surprising given that the senator is nearly universally known by voters, while relatively few of those polled know enough about de León to offer an opinion,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS poll.

Feinstein may have begun digging her own political grave when, in September, she refused to call for President Trump’s impeachment. Instead, she urged “patience” with the Trump administration.

De León told the Los Angeles Times that Feinstein’s comment didn’t reflect the “proper tone or tenor.”

“We don’t owe Trump patience,” de León said. “We owe Californians resistance.”

Sean Clegg, a Democratic Party operative in San Francisco, told the Times Feinstein’s “patience” comment was “Dianne being Dianne.” But Clegg said it showed that Feinstein is “greatly out of step with where Democrats are, and most Californian voters are.”

“The base is on fire like we really have not seen in more than a generation,” Clegg said.

“He’s (de León) got the advantage of intensity,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Feinstein would still be the favorite, but I wouldn’t say it’s a done deal.”

Even though de León is an unknown commodity to 79 percent of California voters, who say they don’t know enough about him to have an opinion, his campaign manager, Courtni Pugh, told the Mercury News every poll taken since the de León campaign began showed growing support.

A November University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll showed 31 percent of voters supported de León, compared to 58 percent who favored Feinstein. In December, the Public Policy Institute of California released a voter survey that showed the primary race at 45-to-21 percent in favor of Feinstein.

“As Democrats are reminded of Feinstein’s record of focusing on the one percent while millions of Californians are left on the margins, the race will tighten even further,” Pugh said. “And Republicans won’t vote for her.”

However, Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s political advisor, told the Los Angeles Times that the five-term incumbent had nothing to worry about, at least not from de León, who is “a virtual unknown, a termed-out politician looking for a gig.”

If the de León campaign “sees an opening, it’s a mirage,” Carrick added.

Carrick could be right. The de Leon campaign might be doomed. But Sacramento Bee columnist Erika D. Smith feels it is a fight worth having if only because Feinstein is so old.

After all, if a woman who is 84, and will be serving in the Senate into her 90s if she wins in November, isn’t willing to step aside, how will younger Democrats — de León is all of 50 — ever rise off the back bench?

“For millennials and Generation Xers, this is a familiar point of frustration,” Smith wrote. “I call it the ‘silver ceiling’ – and for younger Americans with life goals, it sometimes seems as impenetrable as the glass ceiling is for women in the workplace.”

“Only time will tell if some young(ish) whippersnapper can come along and unseat the oldest member of the U.S. Senate. Personally, my money is on Feinstein,” Smith concluded. “But hopefully for the last time. I’ve had it with the silver ceiling.”