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Will President Trump's attacks on Sen. Dianne Feinstein help or hurt her in liberal California?

Will President Trump's attacks on Sen. Dianne Feinstein help or hurt her in liberal California?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks at the 2018 California Democrats State Convention in San Diego. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

With President Trump smiling from the podium, the crowd chanted a familiar slogan at a Republican rally in Iowa this week, but with a new target in mind.

“Lock her up! Lock her up!” they roared of Sen. Dianne Feinstein after Trump had speculated that the California Democrat leaked a letter from Christine Blasey Ford in which Ford accuses Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers.

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Feinstein was getting the treatment once reserved for Hillary Clinton. But as she faces a reelection challenge from within the left wing of her party in deep-blue California, it’s hard to say whether it hurts or helps her campaign.

After more than two decades in office, Feinstein is facing heightened opposition from some California Democrats who argue that she isn’t progressive enough to continue representing the state. Her opponent for U.S. Senate, state Sen. Kevin de León, has argued that Feinstein is out of touch with what “working Californians” need.

The dynamic of the race has made for strange bedfellows — with Trump and De León, an outspoken critic of the president, standing at opposite sides of the political spectrum but both criticizing Feinstein. De León has attacked Feinstein on a variety of issues, including immigration and her handling of the Ford matter, arguing she’s now out of touch with voters in California, where anti-Trump fervor is high.

“I know the narrative for Republicans is, she’s not conservative enough as a Democrat, and for Democrats, she may not be progressive enough,” De León said in an interview. “But it’s not about moving more to the left, or about moving more to the right. It’s about moving forward.”

One of the critiques De León has voiced about Feinstein is that she’s too willing to compromise.

“There’s nothing wrong with bipartisanship — that’s a good thing,” De León said. “But when you subscribe to the same country club rules of the past 25 years, it hurts everyday Californians. She hasn’t realized the rules of the game have changed dramatically in Washington with this new president.”

Feinstein’s campaign has regularly rejected the notion that she isn’t progressive enough. She supports universal healthcare and an assault weapons ban, and has worked with the United Farm Workers labor union to create legislation to provide a pathway to legal status and citizenship for farmworkers.

“For months, [De León] has been saying she’s not sufficiently anti-Trump, or that she’s not progressive enough, and none of that is true,” said Feinstein’s longtime strategist Bill Carrick. “It’s almost laughable — because she’s progressive on all sorts of issues that are well-known to voters, and the reason she got over 70% of the Democrats in the primary to vote for her was because they know that.”

Feinstein has long upset the more liberal wing of her party — but within the past year, she has offered up some surprises.

In May, she confirmed that she no longer supports the death penalty, a monumental policy shift after decades of supporting it. That same month, Feinstein told the Sacramento Bee that she “strongly supports” a federal law keeping the government from interfering in states like California that legalize marijuana use. Feinstein had long opposed legalized marijuana.

Still, De León has criticized Feinstein repeatedly for what he views as a lackluster record on immigration reform. In September, he released a campaign video that attempted to link decades-old statements that Feinstein made about immigration with current statements from President Trump.

De León has said that comprehensive immigration reform is a crucial issue for any California senator and has said he will make it a top priority. It’s personal to him, growing up with his single immigrant mother who worked as a housekeeper. De León has implied that his personal experience gives him more passion for the issue than Feinstein.

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He grabbed hold of the controversy surrounding Feinstein during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings when news broke that the senator didn’t immediately release a letter from Ford outlining the night she said Kavanaugh attacked her. Feinstein said she was honoring Ford’s request that the accusation be kept anonymous.

The topic of the letter — and whether Feinstein leaked it, which she has denied — has been a key talking point for Trump at rallies.

In Iowa this week, he mocked Feinstein’s body language when she was confronted by Republican senators about the letter during the Kavanaugh hearings and told the cheering crowd that he believed Feinstein leaked the letter. (The reporter from the Intercept online news publication who originally reported about Ford’s letter tweeted that Feinstein’s staff did not leak the letter to him.) Again at the rally, Trump placed Feinstein among the segment of her party that has said she doesn’t belong with them.

“You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry left-wing mob, and that’s what the Democrats have become,” Trump said.

Political experts point out that throughout her career, Feinstein has been happy to be categorized as a moderate Democrat.

“Trump is not known for nuance,” said Jennifer Walsh, a political scientist and dean of the liberal arts and sciences college at Azusa Pacific University. “He paints caricatures of people — both people in and outside his party — and his characterization of her being an ultra liberal is simply not true. If you look at her record, she has been a very mainstream, capital D Democrat.”

Part of Feinstein’s reputation as a moderate stems from her willingness to compromise, an approach that matches the culture of the Senate, where regardless of party, lawmakers have long agreed to compromise to get anything done, Walsh said.

“If you really want to get things done, you’ve got to have a mindset that ‘compromise’ is not a bad word,” Walsh said. “And in California at the state Legislature, you don’t have to. A Democratic supermajority means [senators] don’t have to compromise with Republicans on anything.”

Feinstein has continued to lead De León in the polls, but the double-digit margin she holds has shrunk since July, when she led by 22 points, according to surveys by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

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She leads De León by 11 points (40% to 29%) among likely voters, with 8% undecided, recent polls show. Latino likely voters are divided — 40% for Feinstein, 38% for de León.

And overall, voter turnout for midterm elections is notoriously low. De León’s success will hedge on whether he can energize voters in Southern California, where he has a more diverse voting base, and more broadly, whether voters will see enough of a difference between the two Democrats on the ballot — and then, want to vote against the incumbent.

In the closest thing to a debate likely to happen in this race, Feinstein and De León are expected to discuss their platforms Wednesday at an event organized by the Public Policy Institute of California.

With Trump on the attack, some experts say it makes sense for Feinstein to simply take it in.

“There is this painting [by Republicans] particularly of middle-aged, white female Democrats as the devil of some kind as particularly untrustworthy,” said Jessica Lavariega Monforti, a public policy expert and arts and science dean at California Lutheran University. “So she can’t win — she can’t fight both narratives, which is why it’s a smart decision on her part to act like Kevin de León doesn’t exist.”

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