Feinstein: The ‘Last of the Mohicans’ Moment for the California Democratic Party?

Opinion by Max Minshull
Oct. 18, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

On November 6, California voters will decide who to elect as their representative for the United States Senate. Spoiler alert: Dianne Feinstein (D) will almost certainly win. But there is more to the story than just that. She is facing a challenge from her left in the form of Kevin de Leon, the outgoing California State Senate leader, who is being termed out and is in need of a job. Although Feinstein has a massive advantage in funding and is ahead by double digits in current polls, the maneuvering and politics between the two Democrats are indicative of broader trends in the California Democratic Party.

Feinstein is the definition of the old guard. She turned 85 in this past June, and over half of the current U.S. senators were not even born when she arrived on Stanford’s campus for her freshman year (bonus fact: she was student body Vice President). She was the first woman to sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she still leads the opposition (more on this later). In her five terms in the Senate, she has authored more than 500 bills, including the nation’s most comprehensive assault rifle ban.

De Leon, 51 years old, is most known for being the author of a sanctuary state bill that has elicited broad support from California’s electorate (the bill is currently under attack in the courts and from the Federal government). Beyond this, however, De Leon has had a difficult time getting his name out there. It is hard to blame him when the incumbent Democrat state leadership in the form of Governor Jerry Brown and Assembly Leader Anthony Rendon have both endorsed Feinstein. Additionally, among national Democrats, Feinstein has deep connections (think of the Clintons and Obama) and already has broad name recognition in general due to her incumbency. Politically, Feinstein is to the left of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and is more conservative than California’s other Senator, Kamala Harris, according to a 2017 GovTrack study.

The California Democratic Party’s activist wing has taken a very different course than top party officials have. They support De Leon’s more in-your-face approach to President Trump and his identification with the “Resistance.” Feinstein, for contrast, was booed at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last year for dismissing the notion Donald Trump could realistically be impeached and removed as President. This did not sit well with the “Resistance.” And as a result of their seething dissatisfaction with Feinstein, the 2,775 delegates of the Democratic party decided not to endorse either candidate at the state convention in February. Interestingly, the jungle primary of June 2018 reflected a repudiation of this decision by the broader California electorate. Feinstein swept every county in the state, winning 44 percent of the electorate to De Leon’s 12 percent, which is even more impressive considering the 32 options voters were faced with on the ballot (note that the jungle primary includes GOP voters). However, this result seemed to have no effect on the rising tide of impatience with the Party’s more aggressive activist leadership. In an internal vote in July among the 300 party activists who run the California Democratic Party (which is the most rarefied sample of activist Democrats in the state), Feinstein was trounced. Sixty-five percent percent voted to endorse de Leon, while 7 percent voted for Feinstein. The other 28 percent decided to abstain.

Did this abandonment by the Party have an effect on Feinstein? Maybe a little. But what the election of November 6 will ultimately be remembered for is a referendum on the way Feinstein handled the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, where as the sitting leader of the opposition, it was her job to represent the Democratic party’s goals. The full story of the hearings is beyond the scope of this column, but one salient observation is how hammered Feinstein was by both the left and the right. From the right, she is the leaker of the Ford letter and the political operative who would stop at nothing to destroy Kavanaugh. This will maybe turn away some Republicans from voting for her in California. From the left, she was accused of her ultimate failure to block Kavanaugh from reaching the Supreme Court. Observably, this drove up De Leon’s poll numbers to only 11 points down (as of a September 26 poll conducted by CalMatters), as compared to down 22 points in late July.

What does all this mean? Even with the Kavanaugh-related attacks on Feinstein making this a more competitive race, Feinstein will still comfortably win. The more important story is that old guard and more moderate Democrats like Feinstein are running out of steam within the Democratic base. Yes, she is old, but brutal attacks from left-wing activists because she apologized to Kavanaugh for the obscene interruptions at the hearings, as well as saying that she hopes that Trump “has the ability to learn and to change” over the course of his term, are signs of a drive further to the left in the Democratic Party that is unlikely to end. As was the case with my column last week, there may in a few years be fewer moderate Democrats left to lead the national, let alone state party. This does not bode well for pragmatists on either side of the aisle.

Contact Max Minshull at mminshul ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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