How a Kevin De Leon Challenge to Diane Feinstein Could Help Heal the Democratic Party

Democrats are feeling bullish about the prospect of retaking the House and even the Senate in 2018. But one of the most interesting races for many Democratic activists could be the Senate race in California to re-elect Dianne Feinstein.

The race has many of the hallmarks of the 2006 contest between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman in Connecticut: the election of a despised Republican president after the defeat of a hard-charging unabashed progressive in the Democratic primary, an energized insurgent left eager to make an example of one of its least favorite establishment players in a deep blue state, and a likely Democratic wave midterm driving base turnout. Substitute Trump for George W. Bush, Sanders for Howard Dean, Dianne Feinstein for Joe Lieberman, and a coalition of both mature and novice left-leaning advocacy groups for the ragtag netroots, and you’re looking at the same dynamic just a decade apart.

It’s no secret that Feinstein is the bane of many progressives. Harold Meyerson summed up most of the complaints at The American Prospect: from her enthusiastic Sistah Souljah move against state Democratic activists to highlight her pro-death penalty stances, to her enthusiastic vote for the authorization to use military force in Iraq, to her support for George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, to her votes for Gramm-Leach-Bliley and free trade with China, and much more besides, Feinstein has been a consistent thorn in the side of the left for years. More recently she has angered activists for suggesting that Trump can be a “good president” and for voting “yes” on half of Trump’s nominees. Her husband’s ties to private military contracting firms (among other insalubrious business associations) have not gone unnoticed, either.

Lower-profile challengers have already entered the race, but the top two credible names being rumored are liberal donor and climate change activist Tom Steyer, and California Senate Pro Tem Kevin De Leon.

Steyer, who has been calling for Trump’s impeachment and has frequently expressed dissatisfaction with Feinstein’s centrist stances, has given indications that he might run. Steyer has long been seen as a potential candidate for governor, but the chances of his entry into that race seem remote at this point. As a major funder of liberal causes and organizations, Steyer can have outsize influence without actually running for office.

But the potential candidate garnering the most attention is California Senate Pro Tem Kevin De Leon. While he has not firmly committed to joining the race, he has been in discussions with labor and party leaders across the state about a potential challenge to Feinstein. De Leon has also taken issue with Feinstein’s conciliatory statements about Trump. More importantly, the Senate head has emerged as a firebrand leader of the legislative resistance to Trump not just in fiery rhetoric but in real action. A Latino raised in a hardscrabble household and trained as a progressive organizer, De Leon has an extensive list of accomplishments on climate, immigration, labor and economic justice, many of which have been used as models in other states.

Centrists are already decrying De Leon’s potential entry and the backlash to Feinstein, who is being lauded in some quarters as a defender of bipartisanship and Senate comity against left-wing “extremism.” Those with long memories will remember these same arguments being made in 2006. As with Lamont-Lieberman, they are also bewailing the money that might be spent on the contest instead of on Democratic challenges to Republican incumbents.

But a De Leon challenge would likely do more to drive young, progressive and Latino turnout, including in the seven California House races Democrats need for a Congressional takeover, than millions of dollars of advertising could accomplish.

A high-profile progressive Latino legislator running against Feinstein would also dramatically alter the narrative in the internal conflicts that have beset Democrats since the Sanders-Clinton contest. Sanders-aligned progressives are often maligned as white male “bros” sublimating social justice issues under the rubric of economic class conflicts, throwing women and people of color under the proverbial bus in the process. It would be hard to make the same claim of De Leon backers, given his roots and his rock-solid commitments to social justice. Nor has De Leon shown even the slightest hint of giving ground on women’s and reproductive rights issues, making him less of a target for concerned feminist activists than Sanders has been.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was often unfairly characterized by many Sanders supporters as more conservative than her actual voting record and policy positions might have suggested, making her an imperfect stand-in for the complaints many activists have had about the institutional Democratic Party for decades. Feinstein’s record as an unabashed centrist is much clearer, especially compared to the more courageous example set by her former colleague Senator Barbara Boxer.

In short, the Democratic Party has been riven for the last 18 months by accusations of racism, sexism and corruption on each side, even as a view toward actual policy differences have taken a backseat or been erased entirely. During this time, progressive insurgency has been at odds with the choice of the majority of people of color. A De Leon-Feinstein contest would be likely to reverse this dynamic, with a much clearer divide between younger voters of color and progressive activists on one side, and older whiter more conservative centrists on the other.

California’s top-two primary might also send both Democrats to the general election, which would likely see Feinstein chase Republican votes as De Leon sought to maximize the Democratic base. This would be salutary on both sides: the unnatural divides of the Sanders-Clinton era would subside into more traditional policy and identity factions, and Republicans and centrists would be pushed left toward Feinstein even as De Leon would boost progressive turnout to help Democrats defeat California House Republicans. The effects of the battle would be felt far outside of California, just as the repercussions of the Lamont-Lieberman contest were felt well beyond Connecticut.

De Leon may or may not yet decide to enter the contest. But if he does, it could realign much of the Democratic Party as we know it, and serve as the antidote to much of the unproductive poison between Sanders and Clinton supporters.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.