Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D‑CA) voting record is often shorthanded as “centrist.” In practice, that means the senior senator from California has quite often rejected progressive policies and supported the exercise of state power to launch wars, restrict civil liberties, surveil people, and, until recently, criminalize marijuana and put prisoners to death.
On capital punishment, Feinstein has performed a leftward lurch in her current Senate campaign, with a come-to-Jesus moment at the age of 84. But she has never wavered in her quest to ban flag burning. It was an issue she highlighted in a 1990 failed gubernatorial bid. When Republicans in the Senate pushed for a constitutional amendment banning it in 1995, she was one of seven Democrats who supported the bill. And she was in the thick of the fight again in 2006, when she co-sponsored another flag-burning bill pushed by the GOP. Both bills failed, narrowly.
This past weekend saw the most stunning referendum yet on Sen. Feinstein’s leadership, as delegates to the California Democratic Party voted on which candidate to endorse in this year’s Senate race. California’s “top-two” primary system means that both candidates in the race are Democrats. During Saturday’s endorsement vote, Feinstein received just 7 percent, while her progressive challenger, Kevin de Leon, won out with 65 percent.
With that shocker, you could feel the party’s tectonic plates begin to shift.
The California Senate race is a critical front in the progressive movement’s bid to transform the Democratic Party. De Leon, the speaker of the California State Senate, is mounting a challenge from Feinstein’s left, offering voters a clear alternative. He has not only been a leader in resisting President Trump’s policies but has been a key supporter of progressive legislation across the board, including Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage (which was passed in 2016), abolishing ICE, environmental protections and laws to promote renewable energy and fight climate change.
De Leon, 51, came of age politically during California’s sharp-right turn on immigration. This was in the late 1980s and 1990s, when California still regularly elected Republicans to statewide offices. In 1994, voters there passed the unsubtly named “Save Our State” ballot initiative — Proposition 187 — which proposed prohibiting undocumented immigrants from accessing public services, including schools. It passed with 59 percent of the vote. A federal court struck it down in 1999.
De Leon grew up in a poor area of San Diego. His mother, an immigrant from Guatemala, was a housekeeper. After he dropped out of UC-Santa Barbara, de Leon worked for an immigration center in Los Angeles that taught undocumented people language and organizing skills. One of his formative experiences as an organizer was working against Prop 187. (De Leon eventually graduated from Pitzer College.)
Not surprisingly he’s been a key voice in pushing back on the Trump administration’s brutal immigration efforts. “We will lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution,” he and the Assembly Speaker, Anthony Rendon, wrote in a joint statement the day after the 2016 election. “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”
That’s certainly the image the state has cultivated — the HQ of the resistance, blazing the path toward a post-Trump future. Feinstein has always been the deeply embarrassing off note in the narrative. It’s not so much her age and the fact that she’s been in the Senate since 1992. It’s that she represents a California that no longer exists.
There is a dwindling constituency in the state for her centrism, hawkishness and weird obsessions which have come into sharper focus under Trump. For example, it’s inconvenient for Feinstein but hardly surprising that the president is one of the few people whose passion to ban flag burning seems to rival her own. Shortly after the 2016 election, Trump tweeted, with typical grace and lyricism, that offenders must be punished — “perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
The California Democratic Party’s landslide endorsement of de Leon on Saturday is a nod to all of these realities. It’s also a boost to the hope of replacing Feinstein with a truly progressive senator. De Leon has a lifetime score of 94 percent from the California League of Conservation Voters, and he has broad and strong support from organized labor, including endorsements from the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association.
For all that, his bid is a long shot by any realistic political calculus. Feinstein’s deficit of endorsements is offset by her strong name recognition and an overflowing campaign war chest, which, as of May, stood at about $7 million, versus $700,000 for de Leon. Polling in June showed her with a double-digit lead in the race, 36 percent to 18 percent.
The good news for de Leon? Nearly half of respondents were undecided. Voters are open to change, clearly. Plus the California Democratic Party endorsement will help him increase his name recognition, recruit volunteers and raise funds.
The Senate race in California is likely the best case study we’ll have, prior to 2020, of a robust progressive vision of the future set against the power of money, inertia and incumbency. And it’s California’s best chance to deliver on all the hype around its status as the vanguard of resistance, against both Trump and the GOP as well as the Democratic establishment.