Dianne Feinstein, the long-serving Democratic senator from California, has irked her political base, which has come to view her as too pragmatic. She’s even in danger of losing a political primary thanks to a progressive uprising.
Yet she can’t be too worried. Because even if Feinstein loses that primary, under California’s system, it’s still likely she’ll win comfortably in November over even a credible Democratic challenger. The reason is that California has a jungle primary, meaning the top two finishers in the June 5 contest will face off in November regardless of what parties they’re from. Indeed, the prospect that Feinstein could end up as the de facto Republican candidate probably has California conservatives discomfited right about now.
The 84-year-old Feinstein is not part of the resistance. She’s declined to join fellow Californians Maxine Waters and Brad Sherman—both U.S. House members—in demanding the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
California’s left was aghast when she called for “patience” with the president, and had the temerity to suggest that if Trump had the ability “to learn and to change” he could be a “good president.” More recently, she sat next to Trump at the White House meeting on guns and school safety where she spoke with him politely.
Feinstein’s top challenger, state Senate President Pro-Tem Kevin de Leon, stirred up enough Democrats over the “good president” comment to win a majority of delegates at the state party convention back in February. That wasn’t enough to score the Democratic endorsement, but it was enough to deny the endorsement to Feinstein.
“Leadership comes from human audacity, not from congressional seniority,” de Leon, 51, told the delegates at the February convention. Thanks to his scrambling the race, California’s Senate contest now has at least 29 candidates. Of that field, seven other Democrats are challenging Feinstein and de Leon, 11 Republicans are running, and eight candidates are classified in other parties or as independents.
Still, the general election in November will almost definitely come down to a clash of two Democrats: Feinstein versus de Leon. It would take a seismic San Francisco-style political earthquake for Feinstein to come in third place in the primary, and she doesn’t have to come in first place either, something she knows well. As long as she makes it to the general, she’s likely to remain in the Senate. On the flip side, if de Leon doesn’t win in June, he’ll have a much more difficult task rallying support to his cause going into November.
If he does win the first round, de Leon, described throughout the California media as youthful and energetic, could present himself as an idea candidate in the age of resistance. He was a leading figure in making California a “sanctuary state.” He also pushed—unsuccessfully—for a state-run single-payer health care system. “The state has changed dramatically in the past quarter-century and it requires a new voice that expresses the values of California today, not yesterday,” de Leon said in an appeal to the state’s progressive spirit.
De Leon isn’t doing so well on the scoreboard though. Feinstein has the support of 42 percent of likely voters, compared to just 16 percent for De Leon, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released on March 21. Still, more than a third of voters—39 percent—are undecided, including more than two thirds of Republicans.
These trends may sound familiar. Back in 2006, a veteran Democratic senator—the vice presidential nominee six years earlier, in fact—lost a primary to a far-left candidate. The former was then the senator from Connecticut Joe Lieberman, who was hawkish on foreign policy and defended his vote on the Iraq war while most congressional Democrats were running away from theirs. The latter was Greenwich millionaire Ned Lamont.
Lamont lagged far behind Lieberman after entering the Democratic primary, standing at single digits in most polls. Yet Lamont went on to surprise the Democratic state convention by winning 30 percent of the delegates ahead of the primary. Lieberman had most prominent Democrats, including Bill Clinton, stump for him; Lamont had the backing of the activist base of the party.
That August, Lamont won the primary, and told his supporters: “They call Connecticut the land of steady habits. Tonight, we voted for a big change.” This was no jungle primary, but Lieberman had already started gathering signatures to run as an independent before the vote. And lucky for him, the Republicans only offered token opposition.
Lamont was endorsed by Connecticut’s senior senator and co-chairman of Lieberman’s failed 2004 presidential campaign, Chris Dodd; the state’s then-attorney general Richard Blumenthal; and most of the Democratic power structure. He even drew the support of some national Democrats such as John Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts and the Democratic presidential nominee two years earlier.
Meanwhile, two Republicans from Connecticut’s congressional delegation endorsed Lieberman, while New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp campaigned for him.
In November, running as a third-party candidate, Lieberman easily won re-election with close to a 10-point spread and the overwhelming support of GOP voters in the state. He couldn’t have done it with only Republicans: about one third of Democrats stood with him out of habit. Democrats that year regained control of the House and Senate, while in Connecticut, they gained a veto-proof majority in the state legislature. Jodi Rell, the state’s popular Republican governor, was almost alone statewide in defeating her Democratic opposition.
It was the final time Lieberman would stand for election. He endorsed his friend John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008.
It’s highly doubtful we’ll see any California Republicans stump for Feinstein, and it wouldn’t help her much if they did. But—similar to the Connecticut race—some in the GOP voting base might regard her as more predictable than de Leon and hope for her victory.
Feinstein and Lieberman aren’t entirely similar. Lieberman was not a Zell Miller-style Democrat: he was a more traditional liberal, albeit one who strayed on some key issues. Feinstein is also a liberal: her base’s frustration stems more from her congenial tone than her going astray on policies. Still, both were members of the Senate establishment club, which can prove a liability to incumbents in potentially watershed years. It’s California’s system that will save Feinstein, more likely than not.
Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for the Daily Signal, and author of Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections. The views expressed are solely his own. Title and publications listed are for identification purposes only.