In a terrible blow to her campaign, Dianne Feinstein failed to win the official endorse-
ment of the California Democratic Party as she seeks reelection to a fifth term in the senate. On Feb. 24, State Senator Kevin de León won 54 percent of the party delegates’ votes while Feinstein received only 37 percent. De León failed to reach the 60 percent necessary to receive the official endorsement of the party, but his performance against Feinstein is a reason to be optimistic for the future of progressivism in the
Since she first became a California senator in 1992, Feinstein has repeatedly tacked to the right of the state Democratic Party. She supported the Patriot Act, which made it easier for the government to spy on ordinary Americans, and the Secure Fence Act of ’06, which aimed to fight illegal immigration by building 700 miles of new fencing along the southern border with Mexico.
Not only that, she expressed her support for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which served to regulate the activity of U.S. banks and whose repeal was speculated to have helped cause the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Feinstein also continues to stand against marijuana legalization and single-payer health care despite the high popularity of these policies in her home state (Vox, “Sen. Dianne Feinstein Is Running for Reelection. The Left Isn’t Happy
About It,” 10.09.2017). To her credit, she has progressive stances on the environment, gun control and women’s rights, but that is not enough to justify perpetual incumbency in the most influential of blue states.
Her opponent Kevin de León is a stalwart progressive who designed and passed ambitious healthcare, environmental and sanctuary city legislation during his time in the California State Senate. He is a prominent representative of a generation of Latinx Californian politicians who were instrumental in steering the state leftwards after California Republicans alienated the Latinx population by attempting to prohibit undocumented migrants from receiving social services and public health care and attending public schools (California Voter Foundation, “Illegal Aliens. Ineligibility for Public Services,” 1994).
At the moment, it is highly unlikely that De León will beat Feinstein for the Senate seat. He trails her by at least 20 percent in most polls and has a tiny fraction of her campaign fundraising numbers (Slate, “Dianne Feinstein’s Democratic Challenger Has Little Support but Lots of Time,” 02.14.2018). Feinstein remains relatively popular with everyday Californians despite alienating the bulk of Democratic party activists.
However, California has “jungle primaries,” in which all candidates, regardless of party, are put on the same ballot and then the top two move on to the final round (Los Angeles Times, “California’s ‘Jungle’ Primary System Could Blow Up in the Democratic Party’s Face,” 01.30.2018). The projected scenario is that De León and Feinstein will face off in this final round, which could give De León the increased public profile he needs to mount a successful insurgent campaign.
Democrats nationwide, regardless of whether they prefer Kevin de León or Dianne Feinstein, should be heartened by the existence of such intense debate within the party. Feinstein has been senator for 26 years. Long-term incumbency when left unchallenged is damaging to democracy because it leads politicians to lose touch with their constituencies. It also spreads apathy among voters because they are not exposed to a diverse set of choices.
Kevin de León is doing Dianne Feinstein a favor because she is now being forced to pay more attention to the voters she represents and must now articulate an adequate centrist response to the demands of the left wing that she has ignored. Even if he loses, the California Democratic Party will be a more democratic institution for it.
There is a commonly held view in establishment circles that progressive challenges to centrist Democrats will harm the party’s performance and enable continuing Republican dominance.
Politicians like Feinstein, who refuse to get on board with widely popular policies like Medicare for All because of their own rigid ideological convictions, are painted as unideological pragmatists who are the only ones able to deliver electoral and legislative victories
(Bloomberg, “The Left’s Shoddy Attack on Feinstein,” 02.27.2018).
There is some substance to this viewpoint. Maine elected proto-Trump Governor Paul LePage with only 38.1 percent of the vote because the left vote was split between the party candidate and independents. However, California’s “jungle primary” system renders this risk negligible.
Opposing De León’s run is not promoting smart tactics but rather is a cynical attempt to maintain party discipline in the short term at the expense of the long-term health of the Democratic party. Clinton, the ultimate “pragmatist,” failed to win, and it was not because of the challenge posed to her by Bernie Sanders in the primaries.
California Democrats should look to how the Democratic Party reconciled after the primaries and created the most progressive platform in its history by bringing Sanders and Clinton supporters together in productive sessions. This is a model that the party can emulate in crafting a legislative agenda either De León or Feinstein could eventually bring with them to the Senate.
For now, they should not seek to stamp out the multiplicity of voices in their party. There can be no representative democracy if there is only one representative to choose from.