Senate Democrats have largely avoided the prospect of costly and divisive primary challenges, which are bedeviling their Republican colleagues and threaten to wreak havoc for the GOP as it tries to protect a narrow majority next year. But when California’s Dianne Feinstein announced this week that she would seek a sixth term, she garnered criticism from some in her party who claim the senator’s liberalism doesn’t sufficiently match what the moment demands.
Feinstein’s re-election bid appears likely to invite challengers from the left, potentially setting up a tug of war within the party in one of the most liberal states in the union.
Critics of the 84-year-old senator argue she has grown out of touch with the political shifts in California and within the party, and that she should make way to allow other Democrats to climb the political ladder.
“After 47 years in elected office and 25 years in the Senate, she continues to cling to office as a voice for the status quo,” said freshman Rep. Ro Khanna, who won his Silicon Valley area district by defeating the Democratic incumbent there. Other state Democrats have weighed in on the broader concern of party leadership. Last week, Rep. Linda Sanchez, referring to colleague Nancy Pelosi, said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation in the party.
“There are a half-dozen aspiring California Democrats who went to bed last night screaming in their pillows,” says Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto. “These jobs don’t come up very often.”
Next year’s governor’s race will provide one opportunity for those younger party members to rise up. But that race, to succeed the term-limited Jerry Brown, is already crowded. And Feinstein’s re-election bid is likely to close the door for many aspiring Democrats in the state.
Khanna isn’t planning to challenge her, but the term-limited state Senate leader, Kevin de Leon, is considered a potential opponent. The first Latino to hold his current position in the state legislature has been raising money, and he released a video ahead of the state party convention this spring touting California’s accomplishments and taking not-so-subtle swipes at President Trump. De Leon caught the eye of Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal blog Daily Kos, which has helped raise money for progressive candidates. “Hey @kdeleon, let’s talk! We share a common interest in this Senate race. Let’s beat the most pro-Trump Blue-state Dem in the country!” he tweeted.
Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Joseph Sanberg is also thought to be weighing a run. After Feinstein announced her 2018 plans on Twitter, Sanberg issued several tweets of his own. “California deserves a bold progressive fighter who will stand up to Trump – bullies like Trump are defeated by courage, not patience,” he wrote.
One early sign of the friction between Democrats like Feinstein and the riled-up party base came in August, when the senator was booed by constituents for saying Trump could be a good president if he changed his ways. “I just hope he has the ability to learn and change,” she said at an event in San Francisco. She later issued a statement clarifying her position, arguing she was “under no illusion” the president would alter his behavior and rhetoric.
Afterward, de Leon issued a statement of his own, urging Democrats in Congress to “not be complicit in his reckless behavior.”
Last week, he criticized Feinstein on one of her core issues after she said on “Meet the Press” that current gun laws would not have stopped the Las Vegas shooter.
That mass shooting, the deadliest in modern American history, has again put Feinstein in the spotlight on policy. The lawmaker was at San Francisco’s City Hall the day Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated, and is a leading proponent of stricter gun laws. She re-introduced her ban on assault weapons after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Last week she introduced legislation to ban bump stocks, which enable semi-automatic weapons to fire automatically.
Feinstein, who became mayor of San Francisco after Moscone’s death, has long been considered a centrist Democrat. While running, unsuccessfully, for governor in 1990, she was booed at her state party convention for voicing support for the death penalty. She more recently called Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified information an act of treason. And she has been reluctant to support a single-payer health care system that many in her party, including the state’s junior U.S. senator, Kamala Harris, support.
But Feinstein has drawn plenty of criticism from Republicans, as well. In 2014, for example, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she released a bombshell report about the CIA’s interrogation techniques, and urged President Obama to declassify it in its entirety.
Her supporters are drawn to this kind of political adroitness. “Diane Feinstein is a leader who has probably the most common sense of almost everybody in the state,” Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, told RCP. “She understands how to balance the needs of all of her constituents. We need that common sense at this point.” Feinstein’s re-election, he said, “really matters to California.”
It has for some time. She was first elected to the Senate in 1992 – coincidentally the Year of the Woman – and Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, also elected in that election, were the first women to represent the state in the upper chamber.
While the Golden State is bright blue, winning statewide still requires support from Republican voters and non-affiliated ones, who make up about a third of the electorate. And while a Democratic primary may pull her further to the left, strategists don’t expect Feinstein to change her tack.
“She is willing to say things other Democrats would consider heresy,” says Whalen. “That’s what brought her to the dance to begin with.”
Feinstein also has several structural advantages that will make her difficult to beat. Among the most significant is the way in which California holds elections. The state’s “jungle primary” allows the top two finishers, regardless of party, to advance to the general election. With the GOP virtually a non-factor at the federal level in the state, the general election next year will likely feature two Democrats. Such a system favors Feinstein, who will likely be able to attract votes beyond the party.
The size of California and number of media markets there make statewide races enormously expensive. An insurgent candidate would have to make up significant ground in terms of securing name identification and donations.
Further, Feinstein’s seniority in Congress is likely to be seen as an asset, especially since Democrats are already in the minority.
“It would be very difficult for anyone to defeat her,” says California Democrat Bill Press, an early supporter of Bernie Sanders. “Politics has shifted certainly, but not to a point where Democrats are going to reject the senior senator from California.”
Supporters dismiss the notion that she should retire simply to let someone else have the seat and start over.
“I’m not sure a successful politician has an obligation to step off the field,” says Les Francis, a California-based Democratic consultant. “She is clearly still very much up to the game, hasn’t missed a step. She’s as able as she ever was.”
Yet before she announced her re-election plans, a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 50 percent of likely voters said she should not seek a sixth term. And 46 percent of adults said she shouldn’t run. Still, 57 percent of Democrats said she should.
Feinstein dismissed the survey in the “Meet the Press” interview. “There are polls and then there are polls. I’m ready for a good fight. I’ve got things to fight for. I’m in a position where I can be effective, and hopefully that means something to California.”
Some supporters also argue a primary will strengthen Feinstein and the party more broadly. “The pressure from the left is good and healthy and something the Democratic Party has got to pay attention to,” says Press. “Every establishment Democrat is going to feel that pressure.”