For a quarter century, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinRepublicans caught in California's recall trap F-35 fighter jets may fall behind adversaries, House committee warns Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D) has built a career as an effective liberal legislator, the author of a federal assault weapons ban and a warrior for civil and gay rights who collaborated with Republicans on energy and health-care bills.
But to a generation of ambitious California Democrats intent on challenging President Trump at every turn, her record is no longer sufficiently liberal.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (D) has already said he will run against her, and wealthy environmentalist Tom Steyer is considering his own bid.
Feinstein’s challengers offer a hint at the first wave of a coming generational change in California politics, as members of the older generation — led by the 84-year-old Feinstein, 79-year-old Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, 77 — near the end of their careers.
The generation that will vie for the state’s top jobs is fashioning itself as decidedly more aggressive, if not notably more liberal. Those hoping to move up are appealing to a Democratic base that is as energized by the anti-Trump resistance as Tea Party voters were by opposition to President Obama.
“The last generation of Democratic leaders was liberal but practical,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The next generation is under pressure to be more dogmatic. The Democratic left shuns any accommodation with Republicans.”
Nearly a decade ago, Tea Party voters fueled discord within the Republican ranks, both as establishment contenders faced conservative rivals and longtime incumbents were deemed insufficiently ideological.
Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn.
“It’s true that Democrats are more fired up than they used to be, but that’s almost completely Trump-related,” said Dan Newman, a San Francisco-based Democratic strategist.
Tellingly, de León, who spearheaded a legislative agenda in Sacramento virtually defined by resistance to the Trump administration, did not mention Feinstein in his campaign announcement.
The 50-year-old did mention Trump.
“We now stand at the front lines of a historic struggle for the very soul of America, against a president without one,” de León said. “Every day, his administration wages war on our people and our progress.”
The three stalwarts of the California Democratic Party are more measured in temperament. Feinstein suggested that Trump be given a chance to govern, comments that de León and Steyer have both criticized. Pelosi tried to cut a deal with Trump on “Dreamers,” young undocumented immigrants temporarily shielded from deportation, before facing protestors who shouted her down during a press conference back home.
And Brown, who has fashioned himself as something of a roaming ambassador on climate change in the face of an administration rolling back environmental regulations, is known more in Sacramento as a fiscally prudent check on the liberal legislature’s most ostentatious impulses.
Some Democrats long involved in state politics are taken aback by the ambition of the next generation, one they worry is promising the Democratic base the same kind of obstruction and dysfunction that Tea Party Republicans have wrought.
“There’s a difference between progressive ideology and pragmatic leadership and sometimes people seem to be getting these confused,” said Gale Kaufman, a longtime Democratic strategist in Sacramento.
Feinstein has been in office since 1992. Brown is nearing the end of his second two-term tenure as governor. Pelosi hinted that she had planned to retire had Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE won the White House, though lately she has pushed back against calls for a new generation of Democratic leadership.
Behind them sit a host of ambitious Democrats. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang are all running for governor. Current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is said to be eyeing the governorship — or possibly the White House.
Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Health Care — FDA panel backs boosters for some, but not all Biden administration announces federal support for patients, abortion providers in Texas Biden administration releases B in COVID-19 relief for providers MORE, a former congressman once mentioned as a possible Pelosi successor, took on a much larger profile when Brown appointed him as attorney general.
Reps. Eric Swalwell, Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOvernight Hillicon Valley — Hacking goes global Schiff calls on Amazon, Facebook to address spread of vaccine misinformation Spotlight turns to GOP's McCarthy in Jan. 6 probe MORE, Jared Huffman and John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiLawmakers urge Biden to make 'bold decisions' in nuclear review Equilibrium/ Sustainability — The gentler side of Shark Week Pelosi rebuffs McConnell on infrastructure MORE have all been mentioned as possible statewide Democratic candidates someday. Rep. Linda Sánchez, who suggested Pelosi step down, is the second-ranking woman in House Democratic leadership.
And a host of state legislators too numerous to name are eyeing seats in Congress or larger roles in Sacramento. Already, the race to replace de León as Senate president is well underway.
“Some of what you are really seeing is younger or less experienced political players who don’t want to wait for an open seat as an excuse. They are using our current horrible political environment as an excuse,” Kaufman said. “But it’s not real. It’s their sense of opportunity because of our current political season, and most importantly the threat of Trump, that is giving them the encouragement to think they have a chance to shake things up.”
The anti-Trump furor among California Democrats, coupled with term limits de León and others face, has pressured the next generation to begin making its move. They are responding to the constituency who will decide their fate by embracing the resistance.
“For the old generation, politics was a noble business,” Pitney said. “For the new generation, it is something like a religion.”