Still, Feinstein beat de León by 30 percentage points in the June primary, winning every congressional district in the state, plus de León’s own state Senate district. She has the backing of Brown, Barack Obama, her fellow Senator Kamala Harris, and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who is running to succeed Brown. She turned 85 last month, but has shown remarkable resiliency. She has a war chest of some $7 million, compared with less than $1 million for de Leon. And the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, released last month, showed her with double the support of de León among registered voters, 36 percent to 18 percent. (Almost 50 percent of respondents were still undecided, however.)
“The best thing she has in her favor is inertia,” says Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican congressional-policy analyst. “She’s been there. It’s still possible she could blow it, if she somehow does really poorly on the campaign trail, or if she has a debate and she does catastrophically badly. But barring some ghastly mistake, I think she’s probably safe.”
The strains among California Democrats have assumed fresh importance because the state is newly relevant in national politics, after years in which its lopsided Democratic registration and late-in-the-season presidential primary relegated it to the status of a campaign-finance ATM for both parties. California’s voters accounted for Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in the 2016 popular vote, a reality that Trump has not forgotten in pursuing an agenda that effectively punishes the state—from his tax bill to environmental and immigration policies. If the Democrats retake the House in the coming midterms, districts where the party is newly competitive here will play a crucial role in the margin of victory.
All of which is to say that the Feinstein-de León contest will have implications for future elections that go well beyond their own personal competition this year.
“When you have a one-party state—we’re basically the mirror image of Washington—there are still divisions within that party, and they become all the more apparent,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public-policy communications professor at the University of Southern California and a longtime student of state politics. “And I really do believe that the progressive wing of the party was emboldened and energized by what they saw happen, in both the positive and negative sense, in 2016, with first the rise of Bernie Sanders and then the victory of Trump. We are the fulcrum of the Resistance movement, and quite frankly that’s because of Trump, and it’s not a fantasy. Every decision the man has made in office has had some kind of negative impact on California.”
For the first time in years, California politicians are exploring the possibility of presidential candidacies, including Harris and Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. The Sanders wing of the party is perhaps stronger than ever here in the aftermath of Clinton’s defeat—a reality that any of the party’s more centrist 2020 contenders will have to face. They’re all watching the Feinstein race with intense interest.