California Democrats snub Dianne Feinstein

DIANNE FEINSTEIN has served California as a senator for 25 years. She has raised $13m for her 2018 re-election bid; her closest competitor, a state senator named Kevin de León, has rustled up $434,000. So it was humiliating for Ms Feinstein when the California Democratic Party failed to endorse her at its annual convention in San Diego.

Results announced on February 25th revealed that just 37% of delegates voted for Ms Feinstein; 54% chose Mr de León. Candidates need to win 60% of ballots to be awarded the party’s endorsement. Ms Feinstein’s inability to garner that support will make her the first incumbent senator in decades to run in the Golden State’s primary, on June 5th, without official party backing.

The outcome of the convention was not entirely shocking. Viewed as a staunch moderate, Ms Feinstein has never particularly appealed to Democratic activists of the sort who tend to serve as delegates. Much of Ms Feinstein’s ideology is progressive. She has fought zealously for gun control, successfully getting an assault weapons ban signed into law in 1994. She put pressure on Barack Obama to declassify a 7,000-page Senate report about the use of torture by the CIA during the tenure of George W. Bush. But for some Democrats, she is not reliably liberal enough. “She has never been the sweetheart of the rodeo,” says Garry South, a long-time democratic strategist in California.

In 1990, when she was running for California governor, Ms Feinstein was booed at the state Democratic convention after expressing support for the death penalty. She voted to authorise the use of force in Iraq and for the Patriot Act, a Bush-era law that expanded the authority of law enforcement agencies to spy on Americans. More recently, progressive protestors gathered outside Ms Feinstein’s San Francisco mansion to rail against her support of some of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees. “Feinstein show me some spine,” read one demonstrator’s sign. “Obstruct or go home,” read another. 

Ms Feinstein’s age has also played a part in her failure to excite Democratic activists. The senator turns 85 this summer. If re-elected she would be 90 by the end of her term. Some Democrats think the time has come for her to step aside. As she wrapped up her speech at the convention, music began playing to signal that her allotted time had elapsed. “I guess my time is up,” Ms Feinstein remarked, to which some members of the audience responded with a chant: “Your time is up! Your time is up!” After the convention results were announced Mr de León wrote in a Twitter post: “The outcome of last night’s endorsement vote is an astounding rejection of politics as usual. A signal to Washington that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder against a complacent status quo.”

Aged 51, Mr de León is trying to position himself as the (comparatively) young and progressive candidate California Democrats need to stand up for the party’s values in the age of Donald Trump. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, says the race highlights stark divisions within the Democrats’ “progressive” and “establishment” wings. Born to Guatemalan parents in Los Angeles, Mr de León began his career teaching American citizenship classes. In 2010, after years as a community organiser, he ran for a seat the California State Senate, later becoming that body’s president pro tempore in 2014. As a state legislator he led the charge to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, extended protections for farm labourers, and pushed for California to become a sanctuary state that limits cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. 

The convention result is not necessarily a harbinger of things to come in the June primary or the November general election. California has a top-two primary system for state-wide elections; every eligible candidate from every party participates in the same primary. The top two contenders face off against one another in the general election regardless of their party affiliation. This year, that will probably result in a general election that pits Ms Feinstein against Mr de León. Despite her lack of appeal among party activists, Ms Feinstein still seems likely to prevail over her pugnacious rival among voters.

A survey published in January by the Public Policy Institute of California, a polling group, found that Ms Feinstein led Mr de León by nearly 30 percentage points—though a third of voters were undecided. The same poll found that 45% of probable voters do not know who Mr de León is and 20% felt they didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Only 7% said they had not heard of Ms Feinstein. And her war chest dwarfs Mr de León’s by a multiple of 27. For now it looks as though the establishment will remain just that.

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