U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein easily advanced to a Nov. 6 runoff election in her bid for a fifth term Tuesday, but it remained unclear in early returns whether her challenger from the left, Kevin de León, would finish second and join her.
Feinstein, 84, had 44 percent of the vote in early returns, according to the California Secretary of State's Office. Republican James P. Bradley and de León each had 10 percent.
Under California's top-two primary system, the two top vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election.
Bradley, from Laguna Niguel, registered as a Republican earlier this year for the first time after voting without a party preference. He's running on calls to end sanctuary jurisdictions and repeal Obamacare. He hasn't raised enough money to hit the FEC threshold that requires disclosure.
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"I think the voters are speaking loud and clear," Bradley said from a Republican Party event in Yorba Linda. "They certainly don't want to see the same old same old. They don't want to see Kevin de León."
De León, 51, entered the race earlier this year, attempting an ambitious coup of his fellow Democrat, a Bay Area political powerhouse with more money and a much deeper relationship with voters.
De León addressed his supporters at an election night party at The Exchange, a Los Angeles nightclub, with the race still tight. "We knew it would be an uphill climb," de León said. "I don’t have personal riches nor an incumbent’s name ID. But I’ve faced long odds my entire life."
Changes to California election law and an increased reliance on voting by mail mean results in close races could take days or weeks to determine. Voters now can mail their ballots later, as long as they are postmarked by election day.
Feinstein was in Washington D.C . on election night with the Senate in session this week. She mailed in her primary ballot.
"Together, in this election, we must dedicate ourselves to those values, because they have made California a great state, ending the one-party control of our federal government and moving our nation away from division and polarization," Feinstein said in a video statement.
"Now it’s on to November!" she added.
De León, the former leader of the state Senate, spent Election Day hustling between campaign events in Los Angeles. He began at 6 a.m. asking commuters for their support at Union Station and finished the evening hosting an election party at a downtown night club.
With the prospect of a more liberal opponent, Feinstein moved left throughout her re-election campaign.
Ten days after de León pledged to co-sponsor a bill to legalize marijuana nationally, Feinstein changed her hard-line stance against pot and said the federal government should not interfere in California’s regulated marketplace. About two weeks before Election Day, Feinstein revealed that she no longer supported capital punishment.
Feinstein cast her policy changes as part of the natural process of growing and learning during a recent Planned Parenthood event in Sacramento.
"I don't want to not grow, I don't want to not learn, and the world changes and views change and we change," Feinstein said. "So I think that's what should make me an attractive senator, particularly to young people."
The first few months of the campaign were marked by extreme fundraising disparities and the absence of any major Republican candidate.
Feinstein, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, trounced de León in the money race leading up to Election Day. As of mid-May, she reported $7 million cash on hand and had already spent another $5.3 million. She also contributed $5 million to her own campaign.
De León reported $693,689 in cash and spent $427,906 in the same period. Despite plenty of political allies, de León has struggled to convince donors he could end Feinstein’s long political career in his first statewide campaign.
"It’s not that you’re not going to give money to Kevin de León,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant. “You’re not going to give against Dianne Feinstein."
Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992 and beat out incumbent Republican Sen. John Seymour during what was dubbed a political “Year of the Woman.”
With the economy in trouble and racial tensions escalating that year, Feinstein ran a California campaign calling for tougher immigration enforcement and suggested deploying the military to help enforce the border. In another sign of her leftward shift, she voted against funding the government this winter because the spending legislation did not include language to protect the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States known as Dreamers.
One of Feinstein’s biggest legislative victories came two years into her Senate tenure when she successfully passed an assault weapons ban, an expired law she's pushing to bring back. She was the first woman to lead the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and now serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Before her time in the Senate, the San Francisco Democrat became the city's mayor in 1978 after George Moscone was shot and killed. She lost a statewide bid for governor in 1990 against Pete Wilson.
De León embarked on a grueling retail politicking tour up and down California months before the primary, sometimes speaking to crowds of fewer than a dozen people.
The highlight of his campaign came in February, when he successfully activated the California Democratic Party’s left to block Feinstein from receiving the official endorsement at the convention. He fell just shy of taking home the nod himself.
The maneuver highlighted a division between the activist liberal wing and the old guard of the party.
De León has jabbed Feinstein for being out of touch with voters and argued Californians are clamoring for change. The elder stateswoman, familiar to most voters, held a commanding lead in every poll leading up to Election Day.
She’s rarely acknowledged him as her top competitor. Several polls showed a closer race for second place between de León and Republicans.