Kevin de León needs campaign money. Otherwise, his insurgent U.S. Senate bid will be doomed before voters begin tuning in next year.
Whether the Democratic state lawmaker is able to amass enough to compete with Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the short term depends on how long he’s able to remain Senate leader and whether he’s legally allowed to use millions from his state campaign accounts for the race. The latter remains an open question, with one campaign finance expert sounding a skeptical note.
But beyond those issues lies a broader question that gets to de León’s ultimate viability: Can the 50-year-old tap liberal pocket books beyond California by making the race against one of the state’s best-known Democrats a referendum on President Donald Trump and a test of the left’s appetite for unremitting resistance?
David Quintana, a Sacramento lobbyist who is close with de León, believes the Senate race opens up a new area of support for him, specifically donors and backers clamoring for a high-profile liberal alternative to Feinstein.
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“What makes Kevin so different I believe is that in this case you have not just a progressive, but a progressive ‘insider,’ ” Quintana said. “A progressive with a long list of legislative accomplishments, which I think the progressive folks are really going to be attracted to. (He’s) someone who has not just talked about, but enacted issues they care deeply about.”
But can that translate into campaign cash? Don Nielsen, director of government relations for the California Nurses Association, stressed that the organization has not endorsed in the race, but lauded de León as “brave to go up against the political establishment.” As state Senate leader, de León played a key role in getting a government-run, single-payer health care bill through the Senate.
“He stood up. That’s significant,” Nielsen said of de León’s attention to the nurses’ priority issue.
On Friday, two days before de León formally announced his campaign, California strategists Dave Jacobson and Maclen Zilber opened a Super PAC they hope will draw from the same liberal donor well.
The pair also released a pro-de León video they said was produced over the weekend. Jacobson said Monday that he hopes to build a coalition of working families, environmentalists, immigrant-rights activists, young people and “Californians who are thirsting for overhaul and a more progressive Washington.”
It’s the kind of coalition that backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who raised more than $17 million in California – the largest haul of any state for his presidential campaign.
An immediate question for de León, who holds his public campaign kickoff Wednesday at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, is can he use more than $3.8 million he raised into accounts as a state candidate for a federal race? The Federal Election Commission has not issued a rule so there is no clear guidance on the question.
If de León was contributing the money to help another federal candidate, “there wouldn’t be a problem, so long as it complied with state law,” said Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan election reform group.
“But if his money is establishing the Super PAC, it could be considered a contribution to his campaign, and that would be illegal,” Noble added. Jacobson said he was unaware of any discussions involving transferring the state money into his Super PAC, called “A Progressive California.”
At the national level, the liberal group Democracy for America released the results of its “pulse poll” of California members that found 63 percent want a liberal leader to challenge Feinstein next year. A spokesman for the organization pointed to the tens of millions it raised and contributed to help elect candidates nationwide since 2004. The group has endorsed de León.
Feinstein’s campaign, meanwhile, is working to diminish de León’s progressive credentials, noting he supported Democrat Hillary Clinton last year, not Sanders. De León similarly backed Eric Bauman, an insider from Los Angeles, over Kimberly Ellis, a Bay Area outsider, in the recent California Democratic Party chair’s race. Ellis narrowly lost after consolidating many Sanders supporters.
Ellis said de León “is no progressive,” in a written response for comment on the emerging Senate race.
“No matter how the L.A. political machine spins it, this is about personal ambition, not substantive policy differences,” Ellis wrote in her rebuke. “KDL embodies the worst sort of pay-to-play politics that progressives are trying to rid from our party. A vote for KDL is a vote for the status quo, but with a likely 12- to 24-year tenure; or until the next (musical) chair opens up.”
Feinstein has raised about $4 million for her reelection, though she could turn to her personal fortune if pressed. On Monday, a pro-Feinstein group opened a Super PAC from SCN Strategies, the same consultants who work for Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
If de León is going to catch fire, it will be though a combination of grassroots supporters and a Super PAC to equalize the financial disparity, said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist not involved in the race.
Outside of a show of force from national progressive groups, de León’s path to financial parity becomes more complicated. Traditionally, once a legislative leader announces their next campaign, private jockeying for their seat spills out into the open, undermining their chances of pulling in money from donors usually eager to contribute.
When a new leader emerges, de León likely won’t be able to rely on the deep-pocketed businesses and unions to flood his campaign with money. Further muddying the scenario for him is the fact many groups that lobby and donate money in state campaigns either don’t have similar interests in Washington or lack federal committees to draw from.
Herman also noted that de León will face ongoing trouble raising money from donors reluctant to cross Feinstein.
“It’s going to be very difficult for him to raise money into his campaign committee,” he said. “It’s super difficult for a state candidate to go federal especially against a sitting senator.”