Facing increasingly long odds to unseat five-term incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, challenger Kevin de León subtly jabbed Wednesday at his opponent’s record, but largely avoided direct attacks in the only scheduled meeting between the two Democrats.
The “conversation” with the candidates for U.S. Senate, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California for a small audience in San Francisco, was exceedingly low-key. They were given few opportunities to respond to each other’s answers and traded even fewer barbs.
De León, who lambasted the event format when it was announced, tried at times to draw distinctions with Feinstein, particularly on his support for a single-payer health care system and her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. Yet he rarely mentioned Feinstein by name, largely focusing his fire on congressional Democrats who he said were “always backpedaling” in their fights with Republicans and President Donald Trump.
“We need Democrats in Washington, D.C., that have the courage of their convictions, to not just be on the sidelines, but on the frontlines, mathematically regardless of the makeup in both the House as well as the U.S. Senate,” de León said. “This is an opportunity to move forward with a new way of thinking in Washington, D.C.”
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Feinstein, who noted several times during the discussion that she and de León agreed on an issue, stressed the challenge of policy-making as a member of the minority party. Pointing to her seniority on the committee that will negotiate an immigration overhaul and her success in bringing greater water allocations to California, she presented herself as a veteran of partisan battles prepared to promote liberal priorities if Democrats regain control.
“When you have both houses and the White Houses controlled by one party, it is extraordinarily difficult,” Feinsein said. “It’s like hitting your head against a concrete wall. You can march, you can filibuster, you can talk all night. It doesn’t change anything. What changes things are elections.”
De León has relentlessly criticized Feinstein throughout the campaign, repeatedly accusing her of being too deferential to Trump. He has promised to more aggressively resist the Trump administration’s agenda if elected to Congress, on everything from immigration policy to the appointment of federal judges.
But with vastly more resources at her disposal, Feinstein has been able to largely ignore her challenger and maintain a comfortable lead in the race.
According to campaign finance reports filed this week, Feinstein had more than $4 million on hand heading into the final month of the race, while de León had just $309,000. A recent PPIC poll found Feinstein ahead by 11 points with all likely voters; among those who planned to vote in the U.S. Senate race, more than half said they supported her.
De León on Wednesday again emphasized his support for what has emerged as one of the biggest liberal policy priorities: A government-funded universal health care system.
“I believe that health care is a human right. I believe in Medicare for all, not Medicare for some,” de León said, dismissing arguments that such a program would be too expensive. “Washington always seems to find the money for its priorities: two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan; wealthy tax cuts for the rich. But Washington never seems to find the money to invest in the American people.”
Feinstein has not signed onto a single-payer proposal. She said she would like to reduce the age of eligibility for Medicare, allow Medicare to negotiate the price of drugs and create a public insurance option, run by the government, that people could choose over private plans.
One of her top priorities, Feinstein said, is her “blue card” proposal that would give undocumented agricultural workers permission to work in the U.S. and a path to legal status.
Both Feinstein and de León expressed their strong opposition to separating children from their parents when families are detained crossing the border.
But De León knocked Feinstein for voting for the law that created the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which has stepped up its efforts under the Trump administration to round up undocumented immigrants for deportation.
He also said congressional Democrats had not done enough to help young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. Trump has tried to undo a program created by the Obama administration that extended temporary protections to these immigrants, known as “Dreamers.”
“I wish Democrats in Washington would fight like hell for Dreamers, just the way Donald J. Trump and Republicans fight like hell for their stupid wall,” he said.
De León, who carried California’s “sanctuary state” law through the Legislature last year, has made his activism for immigrants a central part of his campaign. That law limited collaboration between state and local law enforcement agencies and federation immigration authorities. In several advertisements, de León has highlighted old comments of Feinstein’s that he considered “anti-immigrant.”
Hammering Feinstein’s signature policy issue, de León said Democrats “lost a golden opportunity between 2009 and 2011,” when they controlled the federal government, to reinstate a ban on assault weapons. Feinstein led the push to pass that law in 1994, but it expired a decade later.
Asked about Democrats’ attempts last month to block Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, de León was less critical. He previously hit Feinstein for mishandling the letter in which Palo Alto University professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school.
At Blasey Ford’s request, Feinstein did not make the letter public for several months, including during the initial hearing on Kavanaugh’s nomination, until the media began reporting on its existence. While Blasey Ford ultimately supported Feinstein’s approach, de León said it was evidence of a “failure of leadership.”
“As the ranking member, I argued against it to the best of my ability,” Feinstein said of the Kavanaugh nomination. “The process is what it is, and I don’t know how much that can be changed.”
She agreed with de León that, if they take control of the Senate in November, Democrats should revisit the allegations against Kavanaugh.
Neither Feinstein nor de León said they were behind a plan, which Gov. Jerry Brown has advocated for, to build two tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that would carry more water to Southern California.
Both candidates said they would support at most a single tunnel. It was perhaps the strongest disapproval ever expressed by Feinstein, who has been reluctant in the past to take a stance on the project.
“What we have to do is see that the system is run as efficiently as we can. It may be that in areas there should be one tunnel, but that’s as far I would go with respect to it,” she said.