Kevin de León’s got nothing to lose.
A Democrat and the leader of the state Senate, de León is ready to announce that he will challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. She is 84 and seeking her fifth six-year term in 2018.
Term limits will force de León from office, and with a crowded field of Democrats lining up to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, the Los Angeles politician is part of a generation blocked by the bottleneck of the party’s older guard. De León could wait to run for mayor of Los Angeles, but Eric Garcetti just won a 5 1/2-year term, and isn’t scheduled to leave City Hall until 2022.
By that time, other Democrats could be better positioned than de León to launch statewide campaigns. Waiting in the wings are Garcetti and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, along with Reps. Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell and Ted Lieu. Feinstein’s seat is the best opportunity for de León to advance his career.
“If you are a brash, ambitious young Democrat, it’s pretty hard to see how you sit this one out,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who has run campaigns in California since 1992, when Feinstein was first elected to the Senate.
History suggests it can be a beneficial move, even if he loses. Pat Brown in 1946, Alan Cranston (1966), Pete Wilson (1978), Gray Davis (1974, and later in 1992) and Feinstein herself won bigger offices after defeats.
While polls consistently show de León is not known to most voters statewide, a generational clash with Feinstein over who embodies the future of California – and in a broader sense the direction of the national party – would at a minimum elevate his stature and could position him as the frontrunner for her seat in 2024, or sooner if she doesn’t serve out the full term.
“If you do it well, and you don’t make a fool of yourself, it’s a way to get your name out there and develop infrastructure statewide,” South said.
De León has been looking at a challenge for months. He met with reporters while recently in Washington and has leaped at chances to jab Feinstein, who has urged “patience” with Donald Trump and suggested that he could still be a “good president.” Last weekend, de León took on Feinstein for saying on national television that no law would have stopped the Las Vegas shooter.
The unrest from the party’s vocal liberal wing could draw yet another candidate into the race: billionaire liberal donor Tom Steyer. He also took a shot at Feinstein this week for her comments about Trump.
Restive progressive protesters have turned up to demonstrate outside Feinstein’s San Francisco home and shouted her down at town hall events over her unwillingness to embrace single-payer health care. She backed the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act, and more recently voted to confirm 11 of Trump’s 22 Cabinet and administration nominees. Her colleague Sen. Kamala Harris voted “no” 18 times.
Democratic consultant Maclen Zilber, of California-based Jacobson & Zilber Strategies, said de León is smart to take on Feinstein. He believes the political environment may even be ripe for an upset.
“Dianne Feinstein is a something of a paper tiger,” said Zilber, who is running several Democrats for statewide office and Congress in 2018. “I think she’s eminently beatable.”
Zilber said he sees a pathway for de León, 50, to appeal to disaffected progressives, young people, civil libertarians, people of color and Southern California residents. At the same time, he said, the state senator has also done well to keep more traditional Democrats happy though his Capitol partnership with Brown.
“Kevin de León strikes the ideological sweet spot of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Several experts also pointed to recent polling showing Feinstein’s job approval rating dropping to 50 percent, down from 59 percent less than six months before. Some 45 percent said they were inclined to support her in a 2018 re-election bid, down from 56 percent in April, the survey by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found.
“It’s not a great place to be before people start dissecting your voting record,” Zilber concluded.
De León’s far shorter record could become a boon – from environmental and immigration protection measures to larger institutional accomplishments in recent years involving affordable housing.
He led lawmakers as they raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, bolstered gun control, including background checks for ammunition sales and banning high-capacity magazines, extended overtime pay protections to farmworkers and pushed though a $52 billion transportation infrastructure package. Lawmakers sharply elbowed Trump by advancing a measure requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns, which the Republican refused to do last year.
“De León’s legislative record as a senator and president pro tem is one that is going to look a lot closer to where Democrats are than Feinstein’s in the U.S. Senate,” South said.
Feinstein’s team brushes aside the notion she’s vulnerable and that running is a good decision for de León.
Bill Carrick, her longtime political strategist, cited the fact that few voters are familiar with de León and that he’ll have to build up a statewide campaign virtually from scratch, including raising money.
“I think it’s a decision that doesn’t make any political sense,” Carrick said. “He obviously can pursue other races where he’d have a far better chance of being elected.”
Feinstein’s supporters view her as a a master politician and extremely formidable incumbent, and Carrick said she has a strong base in the Democratic Party, where she’s traditionally enjoyed the support of people across Northern California, women and non-white voters. She’s never lost Los Angeles County in any campaign, primary or general, he said, including when running against candidates from the region.
Within moments of her announcement to seek re-election Monday, Feinstein was endorsed by the likes of Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Padilla, Schiff, Lieu and the United Farm Workers. Garcetti took the unusual step of saying a challenge of Feinstein would be “ripped from the corrosive playbook of our ... enemies.”
Liberal organizations, however, have worked to draw de León into the race. Markos Moulitsas, of the influential Daily Kos, is talking excitedly about de León, while the Progressive Change Campaign Committee issued a statement – without naming De León – saying voters want Democrats to champion bold economic populist ideas like Medicare for All, debt-free college, Wall Street reform and expanding Social Security.
“A race to the top on these popular ideas would make the Democratic nominee even stronger in the general election,” spokeswoman Marissa Barrow said.
Democracy for America, a progressive group founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, launched a “pulse poll” asking its members if they want to see a Democrat run against Feinstein.
“I don’t think anyone is under the impression that (challenging Feinstein) would be easy,” said Niel Sroka, a spokesman for the group.
But he said “California in many ways is the epicenter of the resistance, and has long been a leader of progressive politics. I don’t think there’s any denying that Dianne Feinstein isn’t doing that.”
He believes the progressive networks are key to de León’s chance of making it a race.
“Grassroots passion can yield big fundraising results that can take on in a really credible way an insider like Sen. Feinstein,” he said.