California Democratic stalwarts are growing increasingly worried about Kevin de León’s insurgent challenge of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
While de León is praised by allies and activists starved for a liberal firebrand, the Democrats are concerned about a nasty personal feud that exposes deepening rifts and saps resources from their efforts to win Senate and House races across the country. They argue that focusing on Congress will provide the real bulwark against President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Several expressed that those fears would be further magnified if Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire donor and environmental activist, enters the race. Not only would his candidacy set the stage for an expensive TV air war, but it could deprive the Democratic Party of tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions if Steyer determines he can’t be both a Senate candidate and his party’s leading donor.
“This campaign against Dianne is a campaign against the wrong person at the wrong time,” said Phil Angelides, a former state party chairman and the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006. Angelides said he welcomes a debate within the party about its future. But he sees no upside to what he considers an “improbable” challenge to Feinstein, who he put in a class alongside California legends like Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren.
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Dana Williamson, a Democratic consultant not involved in the Senate race, called the challenges a “distraction.”
“A truly progressive agenda can’t be accomplished with Donald Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress,” Williamson said. “We should all be focused on winning back Democratic majorities, starting with the seven vulnerable Republicans here in California.”
Feinstein’s challengers will contend a competitive statewide race between Democrats will drive up Democratic voter turnout and by extension tilt the balance in tight partisan races down the ballot, especially if they can force a Democrat-on-Democrat race in November, predicted Brian Brokaw, another Democratic strategist not involved in the race.
“But in reality, we live in a world of finite political resources. There are limits to voter attention and motivation, not to mention campaign contributions, volunteers, and other precious commodities,” he said. “So while they have every right to run, it’s quite a stretch for Democratic challengers to say that taking on a party stalwart like Sen. Feinstein – and likely having to run a nasty, negative campaign against her – will be ‘good for the party.’”
Angelides, a Sacramento real estate developer and former state treasurer, recently co-hosted a fundraiser for Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and thinks donors should be focused on winning seats and holding off Republicans.
“Every diversion of even a penny away from that is a travesty,” Angelides said.
De León has avoided directly criticizing Feinstein in the days since his Sunday announcement. But in a kickoff speech Wednesday, he confronted the naysayers by conceding his candidacy “represents a different way of doing things.”
“There are powerful people who would prefer we not undertake this challenge. They are content with the status quo. That they’ll decide for us,” he said, mocking that approach.
Rep. Ro Khanna, an early supporter of de León, bristled at the idea nobody should take on Feinstein as “the old way of thinking ... This is the 21st century and the era of party bosses is over,” he said.
Khanna, D-Fremont, said he considered the pinnacle of Democratic voter engagement to be the presidential election more than eight years ago between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“That competitive election led to the strongest the Democratic Party has ever been,” Khanna said. “The lesson we should have is when you have inspiring candidates run they bring in new people, they energize new supporters and they strengthen the party.”
Support for Feinstein, 84, has poured in from across the state, and includes former Sen. Barbara Boxer, Sen. Kamala Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Reps. Adam Schiff and Ted Lieu. Most have accentuated her positives, with some drawing attention to the need for an experienced Democrat who has cultivated deep relationships with her Republican colleagues that could be useful during a time of great tumult for the country.
Garcetti, who shares a chief strategist with Feinstein went further last week, comparing the emerging challengers to the “enemy,” embodied by the tea party wing of the Republican Party. He thinks the Feinstein challenge would not only expose party divisions, but detract from winning congressional races that “could literally stop the worst parts of the Trump agenda in its tracks.”
There’s the chance Feinstein, who has raised $4 million for her race, could bankroll her own run should that be needed, saving the party, independent donors and political action committees like Emily’s List from having to raise money for her. She also is backed by a Super PAC run by a premier California consulting firm, SCN Strategies. De León is starting from scratch and does not have experience fundraising for federal office, though he has a dedicated Super PAC of his own kicking into gear. Steyer’s entrance would dramatically alter the dynamic.
“He immediately levels the playing field financially,” said Eric Bauman, the state Democratic Party chairman. “He has the capacity to fund himself at whatever level he would choose to.”
Steve Maviglio, a Democratic consultant, credited Steyer for notching some big wins and accomplishing far more than he could “by being a junior senator in the minority in Congress.”
Maviglio, who is not involved in Steyer’s Senate deliberations, said when he worked with him in the past, Steyer was always focused on what was the best return for his investment in time and money.
“Running for Senate might result in some short-term personal game, but he will be far more effective on the outside than on the inside,” Maviglio said.
Bauman, the state chairman, stressed that he is not personally endorsing a candidate in the race and will support the party’s choice. And he believes each would bring their own set of strengths.
Bauman acknowledged that he would rather not see challenges like the one to Feinstein happening in his party. But he said nothing frightens him more than three more years of an unchecked Trump “and his hateful and divisive and dangerous agenda, which seems to change from one day to the next.”
To that end he believes there would be a silver lining in competitive Democrat-on-Democrat races for Senate and governor next year – higher turnout of Democratic voters, which could carry into November. One scenario has de León and gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villarigosa advancing to the fall runoff, potentially exciting Latinos, he said.
“I don’t want to see Californians waste millions of dollar in a Senate race, because that’s millions that could be spent in seven house races,” Bauman said. But I also understand that if we want to win those races there have to be drivers that cause people to turn out.” He said if Latinos were to vote in higher numbers, “that means in districts like (Rep.) David Valadao, we might actually get just enough extra lift to get us across the threshold.”
But Angelides, a predecessor of Bauman’s at the party, sees no advantage to a Feinstein challenge, chalking up the rationale to ambitious politicians and activists that are missing the big picture.
“Dianne has a very progressive record, but she also is respected by some of the Republicans who hold the future of the country in their hands,” Angelides concluded. “We are going to need people of stature and strength like her to guide us through.”