LOS ANGELES (AP) - Democrat Kevin de Leon sharpened his attacks on U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday after squeaking out a second-place finish in California’s primary.
He called her a lawmaker who sits on the sidelines rather than defend California against President Donald Trump; Feinstein’s top strategist called him “delusional.”
De Leon’s effort to unseat a 26-year incumbent and fellow Democrat is a decidedly uphill climb. He took just 11 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s contest, barely defeating a little-known Republican. He was more than 30 points behind Feinstein, who is well-known by California voters and flush with cash to fuel her re-election campaign.
De Leon, the former state Senate leader from Los Angeles, suggested that money and attention would come his way now that the field is culled from 32 candidates to two. He said Feinstein is vulnerable because she won less than 50 percent of the vote.
“This changes the ball game, because now it’s a one-on-one matchup that will provide us an opportunity to have a debate on the values, on the issues,” he told The Associated Press.
Feinstein’s campaign scoffed at the idea, as well as de Leon’s efforts to paint himself as the leader of progressives searching for something new.
“There’s no one that believes that he’s in charge of any movement,” said Bill Carrick, her longtime strategist.
Feinstein spent primary night in Washington, delivering a victory statement via video shortly after polls closed. She promised to defend California in “difficult and contentious times.”
The Feinstein-de Leon matchup will be California’s second U.S. Senate contest between two Democrats since the state’s voters adopted a top two-primary system. In 2016, then state Attorney General Kamala Harris defeated U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
The Democratic establishment, from Gov. Jerry Brown to former President Barack Obama, is behind Feinstein. She’s also got more than $7 million in the bank and the ability to funnel her substantial personal wealth into the campaign if needed. De Leon, meanwhile, has less than $1 million on hand.
He’s backed by the California Labor Federation, but the union hasn’t decided whether to spend money on his behalf. Its members will meet again in July for a general election endorsement, where they could stick with de Leon or switch to Feinstein, spokesman Steve Smith said. Billionaire Tom Steyer also endorsed him, but likewise hasn’t committed any money to support him.
De Leon hopes Californian’s widespread distaste for Trump and some restlessness by liberal activists will propel him forward. Activists denied Feinstein the California Democratic Party’s endorsement in February, highlighting frustrations among some of the most liberal members about her sometimes conciliatory attitude toward Trump and stance on issues such as immigration.
De Leon has repeatedly hit her for saying last fall that she hoped Trump could be “a good president.” On Wednesday, he took his criticism further, calling Feinstein a “prop” of the president. He was referencing her appearance alongside Trump at a meeting on gun policy following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Feinstein, sitting next to Trump, was visibly delighted when Trump suggested openness to her proposed ban on assault weapons. She was the author of a 1994 ban that expired after a decade, and she has been pushing for its reauthorization. It has not been approved since Trump’s February comments, but Feinstein has made her fight to renew it a key piece of her re-election campaign.
De Leon said Feinstein “allowing herself to be used as a prop by Donald Trump doesn’t help the policies of Californians.”
He similarly alleged that she’s late to the game on immigration reform in part because she waffled earlier this year on whether to back a short-term spending plan that didn’t include protections for young immigrants, some of whom protested outside her office. She ultimately didn’t support the bill.
Feinstein’s allies said she’s long been an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, pointing to her role as a member of various bipartisan groups of lawmakers pushing for a path to citizenship for the millions of people living in the country illegally. She also backs permanent protections for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
De Leon, meanwhile, is the author of California’s “sanctuary state” law that has drawn repeated scorn from Trump.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor at University of Southern California, said it’s hard to see how de Leon will build a coalition large enough to become a serious threat.
Any success may come from forces outside his control, such as an unexpected issue with Feinstein’s health, she said. At 84, Feinstein is the oldest U.S. senator and would turn 90 in her next term.
For his part, de Leon said his argument is about values, not age. But his Tuesday night speech included a contrast between “new ideas and the same old, same old.”
“It is about age, there’s just no question about that,” Jeffe said. “It all folds into the debate that’s roiling the Democratic Party in California and nationally - the old guys versus the new activists.”
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