Ambitious but termed-out, Kevin de Leon, the 50-year-old state Senate President, on Sunday presented himself as a tougher progressive alternative as he announced a primary challenge to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, 84, one of the nation’s most venerable, influential and well-positioned liberal Democrats.
De Leon’s long-rumored candidacy sets up the prospect of a costly internecine battle in a secure blue state at a time when senior Democrats are urging donors to invest in House and Senate contests elsewhere that could wrest control of Congress from the Republicans.
“I am running for the U.S. Senate because you deserve a seat at the table,” he said in an email announcement. “You deserve jobs that afford your family a better quality of life. You deserve an opportunity for our children to have a free and equal education. You deserve clean air. You deserve universal healthcare.”
Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s chief strategist, framed the issue more bluntly: “What exactly is he gonna’ do that she can’t do?”
A key issue. The last item on de Leon’s otherwise stock Democratic agenda – universal health care – could emerge as a dividing line in a primary fight between Feinstein and him, and it also highlights a key stylistic difference between them.
“Universal health care” is a guaranteed lefty applause line, and during the last legislative session, de Leon passed in his own house and sent over to the Assembly, what he portrayed as a serious plan for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all approach in California. As a practical matter, the measure was more of an outline for a bill than a landmark piece of legislation, as it lacked a comprehensive plan for state funding. When it landed in the Assembly, Speaker Anthony Rendon promptly bottled it up for that reason, and took heat from RoseAnn DeMoro of the California Nurses Association and other blowhard lefties for doing so.
“Kevin sent over a long press release, then went in front of the cameras while we were left holding the bag,” one of Rendon’s lieutenants told us.
For her part, Feinstein has been a supporter of Obamacare; according to Carrick, she also agrees with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on a plan to add a public option feature to the Affordable Care Act that would allow people to buy into Medicare, a concrete step towards what the proposal calls “universal care.”
Of course, neither that idea nor de Leon’s notions about “universal health care,”will be anything but fantasies until and unless Democrats regain power in Congress. Still, the Medicare buy-in is the kind of incremental, step-by-step legislative effort at which Feinstein excels, but which has fallen badly out of favor among liberals who see President Donald Trump as an existential threat.
De Leon appeals to some Democratic liberals who view California as ground zero of the resistance to Trump and who have expressed frustration at Feinstein’s less-than-fiery, work-within-the-system opposition to America’s 46-percent 45th president.
In the simplest terms, when it comes to dealing with Trump, she wants to preserve and protect the furniture he’s trying to break; de Leon is for flinging it back at the White House.
Breaking it down. Purely as a matter of partisan politics, it is counter-intuitive for de Leon to take on a fellow Democrat in one of the party’s safest seats in the nation, given the country’s current political landscape.
With Republicans controlling every lever of government in Washington, the Democrats’ top priorities for 2018 nationally are:
1) Flipping 24 Republican-held congressional seats, including at least seven in California, while hanging on to all their own, in an effort to win back control of the House;
2) Battling an extremely unfavorable Senate electoral map in a desperate bid not to fall deeper into the hole than their current 48-seat minority status; Republicans (despite their own little civil war) must defend only nine seats next year while the Democrats have 25 on the ballot, including 10 in states that Trump won.
Feinstein was first elected to the Senate 25 years ago and has remained, for most of that time, the state’s most popular elected official in public opinion surveys. Her re-election is the closest thing to a gimme that Democrats have in 2018
In that context, Pelosi said in a brief interview recently that “it is counter-productive” for Democrats of whatever stripe to pour into an intra-party primary fight millions of dollars that could be used in more critical campaigns.
That is why Feinstein, in announcing her re-election bid last week, had lined up the immediate endorsements of key liberal Democrats – including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris; ex-Sen. Barbara Boxer; Lt. Governor and 2018 gubernatorial front-runner Gavin Newsom; leading Trump Twitter antagonist and L.A. Rep. Ted Lieu, along with the United Farm Workers union. We’re told there are more like that to come.
Where’s the beef? Feinstein has angered many on the grassroots left since Trump’s election, because they find her opposition to Trump too measured. Although she forcefully opposed the critical nominations, both of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, she also has voted to confirm about half of Trump’s Cabinet appointments.
And while she has not hesitated to criticize Trump, she committed a cringeworthy verbal blunder during an appearance in San Francisco last month, when she said that Trump “has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”
We know it was just the Convent of the Sacred Heart girl in her, speaking prayerfully about the Perfectibility of Man, but seriously, Dianne?
De Leon has picked up the comment, and now claims it as one rationale for his candidacy,
“We just have a two very different world perspectives,” de León told political writer Joe Garafoli Sunday. “The state has changed significantly over the past 25 years, and we’re overdue for a real debate on the issues.”
Three takeaways. Eight months before the primary, it is of course impossible to forecast how de Leon’s audacious move will play out. Here are some key factors that will shape the race:
Governance vs. protest. Feinstein is among the last of a breed of old-school, statesmanlike U.S. Senators, who believe in compromise and seek to work across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions to problems, a centrist political style that has been her trademark since she started out in San Francisco city politics in the 1960s. With Trump, white nationalists and radical congressional Republicans now polarizing the U.S. more than at any time since the Civil War, however, some liberal Democrats may want a bolder and louder activist Senator who focuses more on fighting and less on legislating.
Old vs. New. At 84, Feinstein is older than her hometown Golden Gate Bridge; at 50, De Leon represents a generation of Democrats whose ambitions have been throtled by the longevity of elderly incumbents, including Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, Pelosi and, until recently, Boxer. Termed out and with no statewide office openings available to him, de Leon will try to cast the race as change vs. more of the same.
The Jungle Primary. As a practical matter, de Leon’s play will be to finish at least second in the June 7 open primary (top two finishers advance to run-off, regardless of party) and then frame the run-off with Feinstein as a traditional left-vs.-center Democratic brawl.
He will try to rally Bernie Sanders supporters (worth noting: de Leon backed Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016; also in 2008 over Obama), Latinos and lefty activists like the California Nurses Union, around issues like single-payer health care, immigration and climate change.
That said, we were struck by this nugget tucked into the story about de Leon’s announcement by Mike Blood of the AP:
In a bitter Democratic leadership fight in the state earlier this year, De Leon sided with the party establishment candidate for state chair, Eric Bauman, over Kimberly Ellis, who was backed by Sanders’ loyalists.
“Let’s not mince words: Kevin De Leon is no progressive,” Ellis said in a statement Sunday. She added that De Leon “embodies the worst sort of pay-to-play politics that progressives are trying to rid from our party.”
The open primary is tricky terrain; Feinstein is hardly a conservative on any of de Leon’s issues, and she also appeals to registered independents whom de Leon will struggle to attract; if Republicans find a credible Senate candidate, it’s easy to construct a scenario in which de Leon finishes out of the money in June. And there may be more candidates who jump in: investment banker and Democratic moneybags Tom Steyer, among others, is window-shopping the seat.
Back to nap time now.