The California Democratic Party on Saturday endorsed U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s challenger, highlighting the moderate lawmaker’s political disconnect with liberal activists in her home state.
The nod provides Kevin de León with a boost of momentum for his long-shot bid to unseat the 26-year incumbent. After finishing second and 32 points behind Feinstein in the June primary, de León spent weeks calling more than 300 members of the party’s executive board to earn their support.
His work paid off Saturday when 65 percent of the voting members endorsed him over Feinstein at a gathering in Oakland.
“Earning the endorsement of so many leaders and activists of the California Democratic Party isn’t just an honor and a privilege; today’s vote is a clear-eyed rejection of politics as usual in Washington, D.C.,” de León said in a statement. “We have presented Californians with the first real alternative to the worn-out Washington playbook in a quarter-century.“
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Feinstein had asked board members not to endorse either candidate. In the end, 7 percent gave her the nod anyway and 28 percent heeded her call to remain neutral.
“While 217 delegates expressed their view today, Sen. Feinstein won by 2.1 million votes and earned 70 percent of the Democratic vote in the California Primary election, carrying every county by double digits over her opponent,” Jeff Millman, Feinstein’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “We are confident that a large majority of California Democrats will vote to re-elect Sen. Feinstein in November.”
Feinstein’s campaign called for party unity and a focus on competitive congressional races against Republicans before the vote. Her message was echoed by several others within the party, including a half-dozen Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives that the veteran senator held a fundraiser for this week. Feinstein’s team sent out a campaign email Saturday afternoon touting her endorsements from Democratic heavyweights Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi.
Anita Narayana, a board member from Aliso Viejo, did not endorse either candidate.
She pointed to Feinstein’s overwhelming victory in June and said she’s cautious of the party falling out of step with voters. “I’m really concerned about the integrity of the party,” Narayana, 32, said. “When we have had races where Democratic-endorsed candidates don’t win, that’s really bad. I want the endorsement to mean something.”
Some party activists were critical of Feinstein’s request to lay off on an endorsement.
“It’s strategically what you do when you know you can’t win,” said Eric Sunderland, a board member and Sacramento regional director for the party. “She knew she was not going to win. It’s a blocking maneuver.”
Sunderland voted for de León, saying he represents the direction of the party and citing his support for rent control and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The state lawmaker from Los Angeles has taken every opportunity to challenge President Donald Trump, and the combative approach endears him to some Democrats.
Feinstein spends most of her time on Capitol Hill and, in her bid for a fifth term, finds herself on the wrong side of many activists on the West Coast. She held a breakfast for Democrats on Saturday morning, spoke at a women’s caucus meeting and met with small groups before exiting the Marriott in downtown Oakland.
After hosting an “Abolish Ice Cream Social” the prior evening, de León walked the halls of the hotel working his signature style of retail politics in one-on-one conversations with board members long after Feinstein called it quits for the day. De León has stronger relationships with some activists in California after serving as leader of the state Senate.
Saturday marked de León’s second attempt to win the Democratic endorsement after falling short at the state party convention in February. De León received 54 percent of the vote, shy of the 60 percent necessary to take home the nod, compared to Feinstein’s 37 percent.
Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s longtime political adviser, downplayed the endorsement before votes were counted and said it would have no material influence on the campaign. Feinstein continues to hold a commanding lead in polls, with much more money to spend on the race.
“They are trying to demonstrate that they have a pulse,” Carrick said of de León’s campaign. “And that’s what it’s all about. They have no opportunity between the primary and Labor Day to get any attention. This is the only game in town. Desperate strokes for desperate folks.”
Jonathan Underland, a spokesman for de León, offered his own takeaway about Feinstein’s campaign.
“They’ve struggled to capture the imagination and vision of one of the nation’s most accomplished Democratic parties,” he said.
De León renewed his call for a debate between the two candidates. Feinstein’s camp previously has said she would face off against her challenger after the primary.