California Democrats brace for intra-party battle after Kevin de León announces bid to unseat Feinstein

Amid intense calls from progressives for a primary opponent for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., state Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León confirmed Sunday he will mount a challenge against the longtime incumbent, setting up a rare fight among Democrats for a seat in the upper chamber.

In the announcement, de León said that as the state Senate leader, he moved to propel “progressive California values in important policy efforts like immigration, women’s rights, quality education, civil rights, job creation and fighting climate change.”           

“We now stand at the front lines of a historic struggle for the very soul of America, against a president without one,” de León added. “Every day, his administration wages war on our people and our progress. He disregards our voices. Demonizes our diversity. Attacks our civil rights, our clean air, our health access and our public safety. We can lead the fight against his administration, but only if we jump into the arena together.”

The 50-year-old Democrat has long been rumored to be eyeing the seat, as he’s termed out of the state Senate next year. And while few expected him to launch a bid unless Feinstein, 84, decided to retire, calls have been intensifying for a challenge from the left, as Feinstein’s image as a moderate Democrat willing to reach across the aisle is now viewed by many progressives as falling short of the strategy needed to defeat the Trump agenda.

For example, the California senator faced fire this summer after making comments about the president that were seen as too tepid by an audience eager to hear fierce rhetoric on how to defeat Republicans in Washington.

“Look, this man is going to be president most likely for the rest of this term,” the senator said at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. “I just hope he has the ability to learn and to change and if he does he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”

After the backlash, she walked back the remarks.

Feinstein’s perceived strengths – bipartisanship, civility and Washington experience – are now seen as weaknesses in a state that has positioned itself at the center of the so-called “resistance” against President Trump.

The contrast between the two is striking. De León, raised by an immigrant mother in Los Angeles is looking to climb the political ladder. He’s the first Latino to be Senate president pro tem in over a century and has embraced the role of being against all things Trump.

“Do I support impeaching Donald Trump? Well. Let me see. The answer is yes,” he told The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Feinstein is a fixture of the establishment with her roots in the Bay Area. She’s also one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and has found herself aligned with the GOP on issues like national security and privacy.

“On the big issues of our time, she’s been on the wrong side of history,” said progressive Rep. Ro Khanna ,D-Fremont, last week on SiriusXM’s “The Dean Obeidallah Show,” referencing Feinstein’s image as a “war hawk” for her vote for the Iraq war and support for the Patriot Act.

“We’re taking on the establishment, there is no doubt,” de León said. “But I’ve taken on the establishment all my life. … Now is the time for change and I look forward to having this debate of ideas, of vision for the state.”

While the announcement is grabbing early headlines, de León faces an uphill fight. Feinstein has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, major party leaders like U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and enjoys almost universal name recognition. Furthermore, she has a robust fundraising apparatus, enjoying a strong donor base across the state – something that de León lacks.

Bill Carrick, an adviser to Feinstein, had harsh words for the challenger, describing his campaign to the Los Angeles Times as “wasting money and energy on what will turn out to be a rather difficult campaign for Sen. de León. … He’s a termed-out politician looking for a gig.”

Meanwhile, the race is also bringing more focus onto the state’s jungle primary system, with it being possible that de León and Feinstein face off in the primary and the general, leaving out a Republican voice in the overwhelmingly liberal state.

“This challenge makes the point of why the top two primary is bad for California,” conservative author and commentator James Lacy told CalWatchDog. “De Leon and Feinstein are likely to face off against each other twice, once in June and again in Nov., and in the meantime a reasonable Republican viewpoint will be lost in the noise.”

But still, Republicans are welcoming the intra-party conflict, seeing the race as one that can push the party even further to the left and divert resources away from congressional races in the state.

“Senator Feinstein’s rough start to her re-election campaign is every indication of what California Democrats can expect in 2018,” RNC spokesperson Christiana Purves said in a statement. “Democrats across the state should be prepared to embrace the calls of far-left progressives who support a failed single-payer healthcare system and a $52 billion gas tax increase, or brace themselves for well-funded primary challengers,”

The primary fight comes at a time of soul-searching for Democrats nationally. Reflecting on the failures of 2016, many left-wing activists see a need to push back against the old guard, in hopes that a new crop of talent could re-energize the base and lead to more victories in 2018 and 2020.

“We won’t defeat Trump and his Republican Party with corporate Democrats pushing Republican-lite policies and weak leadership,” argued Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America. “We win when candidates offer a progressive vision for America and fight to make it happen.”

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Dianne FeinsteinKevin de Leon

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