Kevin de León was at Union Station in Los Angeles at 6:30 a.m. on Election Day, greeting commuters and asking them to support his ambitious U.S. Senate run against Dianne Feinstein.
The responses were mixed, reflecting his monumental challenge in November with an electorate that may hear his progressive and anti-Donald Trump message but is reluctant to oust a California political institution.
Feinstein earned 44 percent of the vote in the primary. De León edged out a little known Republican to capture 11 percent as of Wednesday.
One woman shook his hand and chatted with him in the train station, but admitted — once de León moved out of ear shot — that she already voted for his opponent. Several voters didn’t hide their support for Feinstein. Others said they were with him.
Bruce Roberts, a Natomas resident in Southern California for business, said he voted for de León in the primary and snubbed Feinstein for the first time since 1992.
“I like his positions,” Roberts said. “I really appreciate Sen. Feinstein and I’m ready to see some new representation.”
Roberts said he looked forward to the day the two candidates debate the issues affecting the state. And so does de León.
Feinstein declined to participate in a debate before the primary. She hasn’t competed in an election debate since 2000, but has also faced few credible challengers.
“The more we’re side by side, the better,” de León said. “We do have an advantage because she doesn’t like to engage in debates before the California public, so the voters themselves can make their own choice.”
Feinstein's campaign consultant, Bill Carrick, said she participates in televised debates on the Senate floor on a regular basis.
All major indicators, primary election results included, suggest the state lawmaker is attempting an unlikely coup of a Bay Area political powerhouse. She started with a 10 to 1 financial advantage. Many high-profile Democrats saw his decision to run as an out-of-bounds attempt to force the 84-year-old Feinstein into retirement and a potential waste of resources.
She’s got name recognition that he doesn’t. His bilingual elevator pitch to voters, delivered at least 50 times on election day, includes basic biographical details some didn’t know: “I’m Kevin de León and I’m running to be our next United States Senator.”
Call almost any political consultant, Republican or Democrat, not directly involved in the campaign and they’ll say he’s a long shot. Some say he doesn’t stand a chance. Even allies in the state Capitol fear his effort is a lost cause.
“I don’t think he has enough of a base or enough of a case to make to voters that makes a two-person race between Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de León competitive in any way,” said Katie Merrill, a veteran Democratic political strategist.
But de León and his team assert they can forge a path to success in November.
“It's a campaign of what's possible,” he said. “Can I counter a billionaire's personal wealth with a progressive message?”
His message of defending California against Trump, combating climate change and helping the working class resonates with voters when he has a chance to tell it, de León says.
He believes he'll attract more donors over the next several months. His campaign spent less than $430,000 to get him into the runoff compared to her more than $6 million, according to campaign finance data through mid-May. While Feinstein put $5 million of her own money into the race, Carrick points out that she's still pulled in more from other donors than de León.
With Democrat Gavin Newsom expected to beat Republican John Cox in the gubernatorial race, the flow of millions of dollars into campaigns to replace Gov. Jerry Brown from outside Democratic interests is expected to slow down.
De León's campaign hopes more attention and resources flip to his race, from progressives and environmental groups. He notched potentially lucrative endorsements from deep-pocketed donors, namely billionaire activist Tom Steyer and CalEITC4Me founder Joseph Sanberg, but they didn't lead to any significant campaign contributions before the primary.
With the field narrowed to two candidates from now to November, he'll have a chance to promote his message more effectively.
“It’s going to excite a lot more people and resources into the campaign because now in a very serious way voters will have a real contrast between the incumbent and myself,” de León said. “As a result, you’re going to have a larger voter electorate, a more diverse electorate."
Carrick cast doubt on de León's ability to raise money leading up to the general.
"In the end of the day, I think there’s plenty of places to put your money where you can do some good before you give it to Kevin," Carrick said.
De León’s presence in the race does appear to move the always-moderate Feinstein farther to the left.
Feinstein changed her hard-line stance on pot and said the federal government should not interfere in California’s regulated marketplace after he pledged to co-sponsor legislation to legalize marijuana at the federal level. She also flipped her opposition to capital punishment.
Some suggest that could work against de León in the end.
"The more she tacks to the left, the more she removes any oxygen that allows him to catch any sort of fire,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant. "Kevin has already taken a very narrow lane up the left, and that lane gets increasingly narrow in the general."
Madrid expects Republicans to “hold their nose” and vote for Feinstein in November, arguing that de León won’t get any support from the right.
“I’m voting for Dianne Feinstein,” a middle-aged man told de León directly in a quick exchange at Union Station on Tuesday morning.
De León began to explain his own policy perspectives and was cut off.
“I’m a Republican, so I won’t be voting for you, but thank you for running and God bless you,” the man said before disappearing into a sea of people.
De León isn’t banking on Republican support and questions how much Feinstein will receive. The last time two Democrats faced off in the general election, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and then-congresswoman Loretta Sanchez in 2016, exit polls showed a whopping 35 percent of Republicans didn’t vote in the race.
Dan Schnur, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said de León’s best bet is to campaign against Trump more aggressively than Feinstein does.
“He can’t create the anti-Trump wave,” Schnur said. “What he can do is surf that wave and hope it’s big enough to overcome the Feinstein sea wall.”
De León became the leader of the state Senate in 2014. He was the first Latino to hold the title in more than 130 years and would be the first Latino U.S. senator from California as well.
The former pro tem launched his political career organizing against Proposition 187, which sought to strip education and other public services from immigrants living in California without legal authorization.
He authored the state’s sanctuary state law last year, which placed him in the center of the California vs. Trump drama. The bill continues to provide de León with an abundance of media coverage, critical to a campaign currently without enough financial support for major advertising blitzes.
The labor-backed Democrat is counting on what he calls a base of "salt of the Earth" supporters and union volunteers.
He was raised by his immigrant mother in San Diego and Tijuana, an upbringing he said endeared him to working class families.
The mostly Latina and African American women caregivers calling voters on de León's behalf treated him like a celebrity when he dropped into an SEIU 2015 phone bank on election day. They approached one after the other to snap pictures with him. Some went hoarse from hours on the phone.
"I see him as the person," said Alma Morales, 55 of Hollywood, "who is working for us."