Feinstein challenger faces uphill battle

Feinstein challenger faces uphill battle
© The Hill photo illustration

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In three years leading the California state Senate, Kevin de León has amassed what might be the most aggressively liberal résumé of any politician in America. He has by turns thrilled his state’s progressive base and frustrated even some of his Democratic allies in the state capital.

Now, facing term limits, de León is mounting an underdog challenge to Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCOVID-19 and the coming corruption pandemic Encryption helps America work safely — and that goes for Congress, too Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children MORE (D) — and he hopes the rest of the state has noticed what he’s done in Sacramento.

“It’s not lost on me that this is a huge challenge,” de León said in an interview in his office suite in the state Capitol, overlooking a tree filled with ripe oranges on a January afternoon. “We’re going against the Goliath of politics, with a political machine that’s viewed as insurmountable. I have to engage with the very little money that we have with as many voters as possible.”


De León, 51, has presided over a Democratic supermajority in the state Senate that has passed a progressive’s dream agenda: raising the gas tax to pay for infrastructure projects, earmarking money to protect immigrants in the country illegally, making California a sanctuary state, raising the minimum wage and passing new energy standards. In his final months in office, he will push a bill that would require California to generate all its energy from renewable sources within a few decades.

But some of de León’s latest efforts to push California to the left have angered allies. He sponsored a measure to create a universal health-care system in California, a bill that lacked any plan to foot the estimated $400 billion cost. 

The bill passed the state Senate before Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D) shelved it. Relations between the two men have not recovered, sources close to them say. 

“It’s a respectful relationship,” de León said of Rendon. But when the single-payer bill stalled, he said: “There was a natural strain.”

Assembly leaders said it was irresponsible of the Senate to pass a measure without a way to pay for it.

“You have an ideal that we all support, but ideals don’t fund medical care,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D), chairman of the budget committee and a Feinstein backer.

Now, de León has launched attacks on Feinstein from the left. He points to her votes in favor of 11 of President TrumpDonald John TrumpOvernight Health Care: US hits 10,000 coronavirus deaths | Trump touts 'friendly' talk with Biden on response | Trump dismisses report on hospital shortages as 'just wrong' | Cuomo sees possible signs of curve flattening in NY We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Barr tells prosecutors to consider coronavirus risk when determining bail: report MORE’s Cabinet nominees and her past support for stronger immigration laws as evidence of a senator out of touch with a state that has changed dramatically. (Feinstein ran a television advertisement in 1994 in which a narrator said she “led the fight to stop illegal immigration.”)

De León said, if elected to the Senate, he would co-sponsor a measure offered by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWisconsin Supreme Court blocks governor's effort to delay election The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Trump discuss coronavirus response; Wisconsin postpones elections Wisconsin governor postpones Tuesday's election over coronavirus MORE (I-Vt.) to create a single-payer health-care system. Feinstein has not endorsed Sanders’s bill.

“I think it’s time for change. I think after 25 years it’s time for new energy, new ideas,” de León said. “It’s time to have a voice that’s reflective of the diversity of California.”

Feinstein, 84, is the oldest sitting senator. If reelected, she would be 91 at the end of her next six-year term. De León said he would not argue that Feinstein is too old to serve again, though he repeatedly returns to Feinstein’s quarter-century tenure in office.

“This is not about ageism. Age has nothing to do with this race. This is about change,” de León said. “The state is long overdue for a debate on the values, on the issues and the priorities that Californians care about today — not 25 years ago.”

Feinstein has become notably more vocal on immigration issues in recent months. In a White House meeting last week, broadcast on television, Feinstein asked President Trump to support a “clean” bill to reauthorize the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

Feinstein allies celebrated the exchange — and they cheered again when Trump attacked her in a tweet, dubbing her “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein” after she released a Senate Intelligence Committee transcript from the co-founder of an opposition research firm that paid for the infamous dossier with unproven allegations against Trump.

“The biggest issue in California for most people, particularly on the Democratic and Democratic-leaning independents, is the president and the Republican-led Congress. They’re going to look for someone who protects them from the excesses of Trump,” said Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s longtime political adviser.

Feinstein leads recent public polls in California, but not by an insurmountable margin. A University of California-Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released in December shows Feinstein leading, 41 percent to 27 percent. A Public Policy Institute of California poll from December also showed Feinstein ahead, 45 percent to 21 percent.

The irony is that de León’s poll numbers are bolstered with the help of Republican voters who may not even know his record. Both surveys show de León leading Feinstein among Republican voters, which Feinstein backers say is evidence that de León remains unknown across the state.

“The fundamental reality is, she’s got a pretty strong political base, and it shows up in all these polls. She does very well with Democrats and pretty good with independents. She doesn’t do well with Republicans, because she’s a brand-name Democrat,” Carrick said. “The fact that he’s getting more Republican voters than Dianne, it’s just not reality. They’re going to find out who he is.”

Republican voters matter to both Feinstein and de León. In California, the top two vote-getters in the June 5 primary advance to November’s general election. There is no big-name Republican in the race, meaning an all-Democratic showdown is probable — just as in 2016, when then-state Attorney General Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Dybul interview; Boris Johnson update Biden hosts potential VP pick Gretchen Whitmer on podcast Why Gretchen Whitmer's stock is rising with Team Biden MORE (D) beat Rep. Loretta SanchezLoretta L. SanchezDisputed North Carolina race raises prospect of congressional probe Feinstein advances to general election, opponent undetermined Feinstein challenger faces uphill battle MORE (D).

The first test of de León’s strength comes next month in San Diego, when the California Democratic Party meets for its annual convention. Either candidate must secure 60 percent of the vote among the roughly 3,400 delegates to win the party’s formal endorsement. If de León cannot secure the endorsement — or at least block Feinstein from winning outright — many California Democrats think it would spell doom for his hopes.

De León cast the contest as a referendum on Feinstein — albeit one he is trying to sway. A super PAC that will back de León’s bid, run by the Los Angeles-area firm Jacobson and Zilber Strategies, has been targeting delegates with a digital ad campaign.

“For her not to get the Democratic endorsement would be a big blow,” de León said. “I’m playing for the win. I’m not playing for the block.”

Carrick, Feinstein’s strategist, said the incumbent wants one more endorsement from her own party.

“We are very actively pursuing the endorsement,” Carrick told The Hill. “He better put his chips in another basket.”