Credit: Kevin De Leon (Wikimedia Commons)

“As California goes, so goes the nation.” It’s not always true, but in American politics it’s true more often than not.

So it should send shockwaves reverberating around political circles across the country that the California Democratic Party chose by an overwhelming margin not to endorse sitting Senator Dianne Feinstein, and gave the majority of its endorsement votes to Kevin De Leon, President Pro Tem of the California Senate at its yearly convention in San Diego. De Leon received 54% of the total vote with 1508 votes, with Feinstein receiving 37% from 1,023 voters.  A candidate named Pat Harris running ostensibly to the far left of De Leon received 5% of the vote as well, with “No Endorsement” getting 3%.

60% was needed to win the endorsement out right, so officially the party takes No Consensus on the endorsement.

Still, that’s a remarkable result for a Senator with as much seniority as Feinstein, and demonstrates just how far the sentiment of the party stalwarts and hardcore activists in California has shifted in the last decade. Feinstein has often infuriated the party’s delegates through her stances on issues from the death penalty to the Iraq War, from her support of the Bush tax cuts to her support of Wall Street deregulation. Recently she stated that Trump “could be a good president” and has voted for a surprisingly large number of Trump’s nominees.

De Leon, meanwhile, has been front and center in opposing the Trump administration on policies from immigration to the economy to the environment. The product of a working class upbringing, De Leon has consistently been a progressive champion in the legislature. Unlike in many other states, that record of accomplishment on the farther left of the legislative spectrum earned him a leadership position, and it has catapulted him into a serious challenge to Feinstein in the Senate race.

The difference could be seen on the convention floor on Saturday here in San Diego. Support for De Leon was loud and boisterous as he made a case to delegates that he would be a Senator who would always take a progressive moral stand, rather than need to be lobbied constantly or forced by a primary challenge to do so. In an email message sent out to delegates that nearly captured much of his speech word for word, he said:

I’ll always vote in favor of organized labor.
I’ll vote against school vouchers.
I’ll vote against allowing federal agents to spy on American citizens without warrant.
I would NEVER vote for two different wars lasting 17 years, costing countless American lives and more than $5 trillion.
I would NEVER call our country “the welfare system for Mexico.”
I would never vote to prosecute 13-year-olds as adults — especially in a criminal justice system propped up by institutional racism.
I will fight to end the school-to-prison pipeline once and for all.
I will ALWAYS stand up for our Dreamers and NEVER treat them as a bargaining chip.
I will demand 100% clean energy and freedom from fossil-fuel dependency.
And make no mistake: I will be your champion on Medicare-for-All.
Real leadership – moral clarity – is always doing the right thing. Especially when no one is watching.
Also of note from his floor speech:
“I’m running for the United States Senate because the days of Democrats biding our time, biting our tongue and triangulating at the margins are over,” De León said. “And I’m running because California’s greatness comes from acts of human audacity, not from congressional seniority.”

Feinstein’s speech, by contrast, was poorly paced and illustrative of how little practice she had had in speaking to delegates at the convention or holding to a time limit. She had barely made it partway through her remarks (mostly about guns) before her allotted time had expired and the music began to play, at which point she remarked “I guess my time is up” and walked away from the podium to scant applause. It was a moment made for Twitter, and not in a good way.

Feinstein may or may not retain her seat in November: because of California’s top-two primary system and the moribund state of the Republican Party, it’s likely that both Feinstein and De Leon will face off not only in June but in November as well, with the outcome uncertain. De Leon definitely has an uphill battle to climb given Feinstein’s fundraising apparatus and name recognition. Winning the hearts and minds of Democratic Party activists and volunteers goes a long way, but it’s not everything.

That said, this race has unmistakable shades of the 2006 race between Ned Lamont and Joe Lieberman. Lieberman ended up winning his Senate seat–in large part due to continued endorsements from nationally connected Democrats, much as Feinstein will likely receive–and then used it to get revenge on the left and on the Party for the rest of his tenure. But the message was clear: no longer would the party faithful tolerate Lieberman’s form of center-right politics. In today’s Democratic Party, a candidate like Joe Lieberman would be a strange anachronism: even Joe Manchin in West Virginia, a senator who often crosses over to vote with the GOP, is significantly to the left of where Lieberman was.

The same effect will likely be seen for Feinstein. Whether or not she beats De Leon in November using her institutional advantages, the message coming out of this year’s California Democratic Convention could not be clearer: the era of Feinstein’s brand of center-left politics is over in a deep blue state like California. Party activists and voters expect more reliable progressive votes from their legislators, and the future looks more like De Leon: younger, less white, and far more responsive to the needs of the 99% and their interests.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. 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.