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Breaking: HBJ Backs Feinstein Foe in Primary

Hannah Beth Jackson, Santa Barbara's state senator, told Newsmakers Sunday that she supports state Senate President Kevin de Leon in his intraparty challenge to longtime Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein in California's 2018 U.S. Senate primary,

“Kevin represents a new generation of leaders,” Jackson said, in what sounded suspiciously like prepared, talking point remarks. “I‘ve worked closely with him. He represents the spirit and future of California.”

The liberal De Leon, who’s hinted for months about mounting a generational and ideological challenge to the centrist Feinstein, made it official via video-mail to supporters Sunday.

We reached Jackson less than an hour later in Chicago, where she said she was enjoying a visit with grandkids, even though she was freezing. “It’s 52 degrees,” she kvetched. .

Another reason we try never to leave Santa Barbara. Weather report complete, we moved on to the purpose of my call, for which Jackson was primed.

"Kevin reflects the more progressive values that we’re seeing in California today," she said.

"I have nothing bad to say about DiFi. Over the course of time, she has been a strong advocate for California but its time for new leadership," she added. "The future really requires someone who is more aggressive in responding to Donald Trump and his hate filled and reactionary approach to this country. There's a lunatic in the White House who plays by nobody's rules."

Much more spontaneous, Beth.

Breaking it down. On one level, Jackson’s instant endorsement of the termed-out de Leon is no surprise; she chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee in his regime, and under his leadership. she has passed a number of progressive measures on the environment, gender equality and other issues.

Like many liberal Democrats in the state, she views California as ground zero of "the Resistance" to Trump, and expresses frustration at Feinstein's less-than-fiery, work-within-the-system opposition to our 46 percent 45th president.

Purely as a matter of partisan politics, however, it is counterintuitive that de Leon is taking on a fellow Democrat in one of the party's safest seats in the nation, given the current political landscape.

With Republicans controlling every lever of government in Washington, the Democrat’s top priorities for 2018 nationally are:

1) Flipping 24 Republican-held congressional seats, including at least seven in California, while hanging on to all their own (shout-out Salud!), in an effort to win back control of the House;

2) Battling an extremely unfavorable Senate electoral map in a desperate bid not to fall deeper into the hole than their current 48-seat minority status; Republicans (despite their own little civil war) must defend only nine seats next year while the Democrats have 25 on the ballot, including 10 in states that Trump won.

Feinstein was first elected to the Senate 25 years ago and has remained, for most of that time, the state’s most popular elected official in public opinion surveys. Her re-election is the closest thing to a gimme that Democrats have in 2018

In that context, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Newsmakers during a recent visit to Santa Barbara, “it is counter-productive” for Democrats of whatever stripe to pour into an internecine primary fight millions of dollars that could be used in more critical campaigns.

That is why Feinstein, in announcing her re-election bid last week, had lined up the immediate endorsements of key liberal Democrats – including U.S. Senator Kamala Harris; ex-Senator Barbara Boxer; Lt. Governor and 2018 gubernatorial front-runner Gavin Newsom; leading Trump Twitter antagonist and L.A. Rep. Ted Lieu, along with the United Farm Workers union. We're told there are more like that to come.

What's the beef? Feinstein has angered many on the grassroots left since Trump’s election, because they find her opposition to Trump too measured. Although she forcefully opposed the critical nominations, both of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, she also has voted to confirm about half of Trump’s Cabinet appointments.

And while she has not hesitated to criticize Trump, she committed a big verbal blunder during an appearance in San Francisco last month, when she said that Trump” has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”


De Leon has picked up the comment, and now claims it as his rationale for his candidacy,

“We just have a two very different world perspectives,” de León told political writer Joe Garafoli Sunday. “The state has changed significantly over the past 25 years, and we’re overdue for a real debate on the issues."

Three takeaways. Eight months before the primary, it is of course impossible to forecast how de Leon's audacious move will play out. Here are some key factors that will shape the race:

Governance vs. struggle. Feinstein is among the last of a breed of old-school, statesmanlike U.S. Senators, who believe in compromise and seek to work across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions to problems, a moderate, centrist style that has been her trademark since she started out in San Francisco city politics in the 1960s. With Trump, white nationalists and radical congressional Republicans now viewed as an existential threat, however, some liberal Democrats would prefer a louder, more activist Senator who focuses more on fighting and less on legislating.

"This country has moved away from dialogue," Jackson told us. "I understand she’s trying to work with this guy, but you can’t work with a lunatic."

Old vs. New. At 84, Feinstein is older than her hometown Golden Gate Bridge; at 50, De Leon represents a generation of Democrats whose ambitions have been dammed up by the longevity of elderly incumbents, including Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, Pelosi and, until recently, Boxer. Termed out and with no statewide office openings available to him, de Leon will try to cast the race as change vs. more of the same.

The Jungle Primary. As a practical matter, de Leon's play will be to finish at least second in the June 7 open primary (top two finishers advance to run-off, regardless of party) and then frame the run-off with Feinstein as a traditional left-vs.-center Democratic brawl.

He will try to rally Bernie Sanders supporters (worth noting: de Leon backed Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016; also in 2008 over Obama), Latinos and lefty activists like the California Nurses Union, around issues like single payer health care, immigration and climate change.

It's tricky terrain, however; Feinstein is hardly a conservative on any of de Leon's issues, and she also appeals to registered independents whom de Leon will struggle to attract; if Republicans find a credible Senate candidate, it's easy to construct a scenario in which de Leon finishes out of the money in June. And there may be more candidates who jump in: investment banker and Democratic moneybags Tom Steyer, among others, is window-shopping the seat.

P.S. IPhil Trounstine, my partner at Calbuzz, and I wrote about this, with more of a state politics angle today, and have another piece for tomorrow. Also, I'll be writing more about the Feinstein-de Leon race in the "Capitol Letters" column for the Santa Barbara Independent this week.

(Full disclosure: I am the author of a biography of Senator Feinstein, "Never Let Them See You Cry," published in 1994 by HarperCollinsWest).


Images: Hannah Beth Jackson; Dianne Feinstein (San Jose Mercury News); Kevin de Leon (Los Angeles Times); snapshot of two Democrats competing in California's Jungle Primary.

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