Feinstein, a powerhouse in California — Menendez, no such thing in New Jersey

Feinstein, a powerhouse in California — Menendez, no such thing in New Jersey
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Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHillicon Valley: Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling | Tech legal shield makes it into trade deal | Impeachment controversy over phone records heats up | TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling Houston police chief excoriates McConnell, Cornyn and Cruz on gun violence MORE is the living, breathing personification of the Democratic Party establishment, both in California and nationally. Her bio and background are amazing for longevity and service to her state and to the country. 

Feinstein was first elected to public office way back in 1969. That position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors led to her being elected mayor of San Francisco. She served 10 years as mayor, from 1978 to 1988; her prominence and popularity almost made her Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s pick for vice-president in 1984.

In 1990 Feinstein ran for governor of California. She lost by three points to Republican Pete Wilson. That one and only political defeat did not deter her: She jumped right back into the fray and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992, soundly beating John Seymour.


She now is now chasing her fifth term in the Senate. She is 84 years old. 

On Tuesday she finished first in California’s run-off primary election. Her opponent was Democratic state Sen. Kevin de Leon; she will now face de León in the November general election. 

California’s “jungle primary” system allows voters to pick candidates regardless of party — and the two candidates with the most votes move on to the November ballot.

De Leon, the former State Senate president, attempted to portray Feinstein as far too status quo and an officeholder of the past. His implication was that this very senior elected official was in no way the candidate for these times. His ideology is far to the left of Feinstein, especially on Medicare for all (universal health insurance). De Leon had hoped his philosophy would not only defeat Feinstein but demonstrate that it is the wave of the future for the Democratic Party. 

His strategy did not work; Feinstein won a decisive, striking victory.

De Leon still will have a chance to beat her in November’s general election, but hardly anyone thinks that will happen. His chance was Tuesday, and he did not make it happen. A majority of California Democrats might agree with de Leon when it comes to the issues, but they were not going to vote against Feinstein and throw her out of office. That would have been a very public repudiation of her and her record.

Feinstein’s staunch, leading role on gun control and her service as the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee gave her status as someone with great gravitas that should not be summarily thrown out of office, or even put in a position of electoral vulnerability. 

She is seen by voters as a pragmatic, effective senator who brings home the bacon to her state (with a position on the Senate Appropriation Committee) and who can forge compromise to pass legislation beneficial to California. 

In New Jersey’s U.S. Senate race, it was an entirely different story. The Democratic incumbent there, Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezForeign Relations Democrat calls on Iran to release other American prisoners GOP senator blocks Armenian genocide resolution The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' MORE, was a seriously flawed candidate.

Menendez is pursuing his third term. Last time, he won election in 2012 with 59 percent of the vote — but a lot has happened since then.

He was indicted and tried in federal court for a series of corruption charges, including bribery. The Justice Department was considering trying him a second time following a mistrial but decided against it. That did not stop the Senate Ethics Committee from admonishing him.  

Nor did it stop his Democratic primary challenger, Lisa McCormick, despite her having raised so little money that she did not even file a financial report with the Federal Elections Commission. She still got 37 percent of the vote against Menendez; she even won six counties.

The last time the GOP had one of their own — Clifford Case — in the U.S. Senate from the Garden State was 1979. New Jersey is an overwhelmingly Democratic state; it is bluer than blue in presidential election years.

Yet, Republicans think they have a shot this year with former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin. He has already given $7.5 million of his own money to the race. 

A recent New Jersey poll found him down by just four points (28 percent to 24 percent); the rest of the electorate is undecided. That huge undecided vote should make Menendez very nervous. And political-nobody Lisa McCormick’s showing definitely will make Menendez take nothing for granted in November.

New Jersey has no business even being in play in November, but Tuesday might be a harbinger of a close race that was not supposed to be close. 

Two blue states, but two distinctly different candidates. 

Feinstein a shoo-in, Menendez in trouble.

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics. He previously was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.