David Weigel, Washington Post, February 25, 2018
California Democrats rebuked Sen. Dianne Feinstein at their annual convention this weekend, denying her the party’s endorsement in this year’s Senate race and giving a majority of votes to her liberal primary challenger, state Senate leader Kevin de León.
Feinstein will now face de León in a June primary that could define what the Democratic Party stands for in the age of President Trump. The challenger is running on universal Medicare, free college tuition and other issues that have captivated the party’s base. While Democrats in more conservative states have avoided primary challenges, activists see the California race as one of several where they can purify the party without risking a Republican win in November.
Just 37 percent of delegates to the statewide convention, held this year in San Diego, backed Feinstein in her bid for a fifth full term. More than 54 percent backed de León, who entered the race in October and has run to Feinstein’s left on health care, taxes and immigration.
Candidates needed 60 percent of the vote to win the party’s endorsement, making Feinstein the first incumbent senator in decades who will run in the primary without official party backing. The size of the upset surprised some Democrats, as convention rules favor elected officials and their chosen delegates, and most of the party establishment had backed Feinstein. But starting last year, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had organized to take over local parties, growing their strength at the state convention.
But until Sunday morning, de León had little evidence that his challenge to Feinstein could succeed. The senator entered the year with more than $9.8 million in campaign funds on hand; de León had just $359,261. A February poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found her leading de León by 29 points, with 33 percent of likely voters undecided.
De León’s strong showing at the convention changed the narrative, demonstrating the trouble that Feinstein — who turns 85 this summer — will face in persuading a changing party to get behind her.
The state senator has won the backing of more left-leaning unions, such as the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association, and has attacked Feinstein for conservative votes she cast after arriving in the Senate in 1993. She is one of just five Democrats still in the Senate who voted for the Iraq War, and the only one who backed George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cut. De León, who backed an effort to create “single-payer” universal health care in California, has also knocked Feinstein for opposing a Medicare-for-All bill introduced last year by Sanders.
“Kevin carried our single-payer bill, and that has become a litmus test across the country, whether people like it or not,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of the state nurses association. “Dianne Feinstein represents the most progressive city in America, and she doesn’t support single-payer — that says everything. The establishment politics of Washington, D.C., are embodied by Dianne Feinstein.”
Democrats, who took advantage of several Republican incumbent-versus-insurgent races over the past decade, now face several family squabbles of their own. In the Chicago suburbs, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) is being challenged over his opposition to abortion rights. In Maryland, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) is being challenged by Chelsea Manning, a former Army private who was imprisoned after sending confidential government documents to WikiLeaks.
Even a bitter showdown between Feinstein and de León in June may end up helping California Democrats, thanks to state election laws. The party’s top-two primary system sends the candidates who win the most votes in the summer to the November general election regardless of their party affiliation. No serious Republican challenger has emerged to take advantage of the Democratic split; Gary Coson, the one Republican contender who has filed a campaign finance report, had just $130 on hand at the start of the year.