State Senate leader Kevin de León will challenge California Sen. Dianne Feinstein next year
California Senate candidate Kevin de León. Attribution: Getty Images
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León announced on Sunday that he would challenge California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, in next year’s top-two primary.
De León, who also considered running for governor, did not mention Feinstein in his announcement, but argued that the Golden State “deserves a senator that will not just fully resist the Trump presidency, but also understands the issues that most Californians face every day: That’s fighting for Medicare for All. That’s fighting for our Dreamers. That’s fighting against climate change.” That’s a not-so-subtle jab at Feinstein, who has always had an uneasy relationship with state progressive activists, and made things worse in August when she called for “patience” for Trump, adding that, “The question is whether he can learn and change. If so, I believe he can be a good president.” However, it remains to be seen how many California Democrats actually want to replace their longtime senator.
De León, who represents part of the city of Los Angeles in the state Senate, is well-connected, and he could be able to raise the type of cash necessary to compete in this ultra-expensive state. But as we’ve written before, California’s top-two primary system adds some hurdles to his already tough task. In the Golden State, all candidates run on one primary ballot, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. It’s extremely unlikely that Feinstein, who has the support of some influential California Democrats like Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, will take third place or worse. This means that anyone hoping to meet her in the general election will need to brush past all her other rivals. That’s where things start to get complicated.
California is a very blue state, but if Republicans consolidate behind one candidate, that person could take enough support to lock a non-Feinstein Democrat out of the general election. Team Red is already wary about not having a candidate in the general election for governor, so they have extra incentive to try and get someone through the top-two Senate primary. If Republicans don’t have any candidates in the general election for governor or Senate, it could keep conservatives from showing up in November in key House races that actually are winnable for Republicans.
If too many Democrats run for the Senate, that could split the anti-Feinstein vote too much to allow any Democrat but the incumbent to advance. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer and wealthy tech entrepreneur Joseph Sanberg have both expressed interest, though it’s unclear what they’ll do now that de León has made the first move. However, one notable Democrat won’t be running after all. While Rep. Eric Swalwell didn’t rule out a bid last week, he announced on Friday that he was supporting Feinstein.
If de León or another Democrat actually makes it to a general election with Feinstein, they’ll also need a lot to go right to beat her. The incumbent may be able to court Republicans and independents that view her as the more conservative option. However, it’s possible that GOP voters who have long disliked Feinstein will back a less-familiar Democratic challenger, even one running to her left. As we’ve noted before, California hosted an all-Democratic Senate race in 2016, where Rep. Loretta Sanchez tried to appeal to Republicans. Sanchez ended up losing to now-Sen. Harris 62-38, and Harris even carried most of California’s more conservative counties despite being the more liberal choice. Feinstein would be able to count on far more money and name recognition than Sanchez had, but 2016 is a good reminder that Republican voters may not just flock to the more centrist contender.