Sen. Dianne Feinstein wields instant name recognition and a sizable campaign war chest in her push to extend a 25-year career on Capitol Hill this November — but a chunk of her own party appears to be through with her.
The California Democratic Party declined this weekend to endorse Mrs. Feinstein, delivering a huge boost to state Senate leader Kevin de Leon, her chief challenger who’s running to her left.
The battle between the two Democrats ahead of the June 5 primary underscores an emerging war for the soul of their party, even as they eye big gains against President Trump and the GOP in November.
Mr. de Leon says he’s part of a new crop of progressive leaders fighting for single-payer health care, full protections for illegal immigrants and stiffer efforts to stem climate change.
“These are the people who are going to turn Congress blue, and turn California blue,” de Leon campaign spokesman Jonathan Underland said. “This is the backbone, this is the spine of the Democratic Party.”
For now, it’s an uphill battle.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll earlier this month gave Mrs. Feinstein a wide lead, 46 percent to 17 percent, over Mr. de Leon in the state’s open primary.
The top two vote-getters advance to the November general election, regardless of party.
So far, the GOP hasn’t fielded a major candidate, leaving most Republicans in the PPIC survey to say they were undecided. The deadline for declaring candidacy is March 9.
“It shows a great opportunity, if we just could get a Republican that has got some cache to run,” said Shawn Steel, the Republican National Committeeman from California. “Smart people don’t want to take long-shot bets as a general rule of life. It’s a heck of a long shot, but the Democratic Party is so twisted and divided, it’s a good time to jump in and run.”
GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, though, said rushing to mount a serious primary challenge in the deep-blue state would drain party resources during a critical election year. He said Republicans might be able to divide and conquer Democrats in other races in California.
“The opportunity is in the House, not the Senate,” he said.
Ms. Feinstein may have left herself open to a challenge by taking a cautious approach to Sen. Bernard Sanders’ push for “Medicare for all,” citing its scope or potential cost, and by voting to fund Mr. Trump’s border wall as part of a deal to legalize more than 1 million illegal immigrant “Dreamers.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, the state’s other Democratic U.S. senator, voted against the immigration compromise and has signed onto Mr. Sanders’ push.
Mrs. Feinstein, speaking to California Democrats over the weekend, reminded them she has been a longtime leader in the push for gun control — particularly timely as Congress prepared for a renewed debate after this month’s shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Many delegates at the convention, though, said they are looking forward, and that includes forcing Ms. Feinstein — who will turn 85 in June — to move on after a lengthy political career.
Mr. de Leon received 54 percent of delegates’ votes on Sunday, compared to 37 percent for Ms. Feinstein.
Both fell short of the 60-percent threshold for an endorsement, though Mr. de Leon seized the moment, calling it “an astounding rejection of politics as usual” that will fuel his run.
Bill Carrick, a political strategist for Ms. Feinstein, argued the vote didn’t change anything, since neither candidate earned an endorsement and the clout that comes with it.
“What did anyone gain out of this? Nothing real, or substantial,” he said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has said it supports Ms. Feinstein and expects her to be reelected. Committee aides said they aren’t backing off that support after the Sunday vote in San Diego.
Ross Baker, political professor at Rutgers University, said the delegation’s vote was hardly a killer blow for Ms. Feinstein.
“She’s never been a big favorite of the progressive base. Too many ‘bad’ votes from their perspective,” he said, citing her votes for the Iraq War and Bush-era tax cuts. “But she has huge name recognition. Who has heard of Kevin DeLeon? She also enjoys a lot of respect and affection on the part of her Senate colleagues.”