In the June 5 primary, Senator Dianne Feinstein stomped Democratic rival and state Senator Kevin de León amid a 35-candidate field, 44 to 12 percent.
Amassing nearly three million total votes, Feinstein won 70 percent of Democrats, carried every county, and triumphed in all 100 state legislative jurisdictions on the ballot, including de León’s own 24th Senate district.
Naturally then, in deciding their official endorsement for the fall election, the California Democratic Party’s executive board overwhelmingly chose … Kevin de León.
Amazing but true, 217 Democratic apparatchiks — count ’em, 217 — exercised their bylaw power to dismiss that whole will-of-the-people thing and conferred the party’s imprimatur on a guy who lost his own district.
That was how many hobbyhorse Marxists, Berniecrats, Sacramento hacks, county committee factotums, and sincere grassrooters composed the needed 60-plus percent majority of the 333-member “e-board” to hand de León an organizational victory that humiliated California’s most nationally influential Democrat -- amid an election season with existential stakes for the anti-Trump party.
“The California Democratic Party’s executive board,” iconic political Democratic insider Willie Brown wrote of the vote in Oakland earlier this month, “appears to be on a suicide mission.”
Fearless forecast. Termed-out this year, the 51-year-old de León remains influential in pay-to-play Capitol circles, an ambitious robo-pol with no immediate landing spot now positioning himself for the future with a cash-starved, long-shot Senate challenge.
(There's always a local angle: Both Democrats have SB connections: in the ’90s, after flunking out of UCSB, de León worked as an immigrant rights activist on Milpas Street; in 1994, Feinstein won her first full term, defeating infamous former Santa Barbara representative Michael Huffington. Last month, she waxed de León 46.5 to 8.9 percent in S.B. County. But we digress).
As a practical matter, the Dems’ November 6 election pick will have about as much effect as publishing poetry.
True, de León now may use the party’s formal seal of approval on campaign materials and also has access to lists and data for about 8.4 million registered Democrats. Bet the bank, however, that the 85-year–old Feinstein will win a fifth full term, unless felled by tsunami, quake, or medical emergency.
As a political matter, however, the action is still significant:
• For heavy breathers among the Beltway political press corps, whose grasp on California politics often revolves around hot expense-account restaurants, the Dem-on-Dem dissension fuels reportage about the party’s time-honored circular firing squad tendencies, a popular narrative of self-sabotage seized upon by pro-Trump media and spinners.
• For donors and campaign professionals, the saga serves as a distraction from California’s main political event — the battles for a half-dozen Republican congressional seats Democrats must flip in underdog hopes of capturing the House as a bulwark against Trump’s absolute power; it also diverts Team Feinstein from the ceaseless Beltway battles where her prominent committee perches are consequential.
• For California voters, the episode offers new evidence of the historic weakness of parties in a state where individual media brands matter more than partisan organization. At a time when California’s Republican party moves ever closer to right-wing irrelevance, Democrats now tack hard leftward — while Feinstein, Jerry Brown, and both Clintons, not to mention battalions of pre–Proposition 187, pro-choice, moderate Republicans, have found the statewide political sweet spot is center-left.
Why they did it. In defense of KDL: De León is a hero to some lefty Dems, for whom Feinstein’s anti-Trumpism lacks passion and who credit him for authoring the pro-immigrant “sanctuary state” law. Unlike Feinstein, de León also voices support for single-payer health insurance and impeachment now.
Daraka Larimore-Hall, state Democratic vice chair and local party chieftain, said, using the nickname initials favored by de León fans, “KDL embodies our values.”
Larimore-Hall chafes at the notion that he and his colleagues blundered with their endorsement, shrugging off the near-unanimous support Feinstein has from Democratic heavyweights, from Barack Obama to Senator Kamala Harris.
“It’s not the job of the party to act as a rubber stamp,” he said. “A lot has changed in California and in the world since the ’90s, and [Feinstein] has not changed with it.”
All righty then.
One in an occasional series about California's 2018 statewide campaigns. A version of this post also was published in the SB Independent.
Images: Dianne Feinstein thought balloon: "You've got to be kidding me" (Vice); Willie Brown (whosdatedwho.com); Feinstein and Kevin de Leon (CBS News); Daraka Larimore-Hall (Twitter).