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California Democrats' snub of party icon Dianne Feinstein could be a speed bump — or a signal

California Democrats overwhelmingly decided not to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein this weekend, an embarrassing rebuke of a party icon who has represented California in the Senate for a quarter-century.

Nearly two-thirds of the party's delegates voted against backing her campaign for a fifth full term, a reflection of the dissonance between an increasingly liberal state party and the moderation and pragmatism that have been hallmarks of Feinstein's political career.

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The lack of support could simply be a speed bump on Feinstein's path to reelection in November. But many Democrats gathered in San Diego for their annual convention said they were looking for a flamethrower who would more aggressively confront President Trump and viewed Feinstein as a creature of the nation's capital who has lost touch with her California roots.

Feinstein's opponent, state Senate leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles, won 54% of the delegates' votes Saturday, just shy of the 60% needed to secure the endorsement. Feinstein received 37%.

"I have never seen her ever at a convention until she finally realized, 'I've got a challenge on my hands,'" said Mark Gonzalez, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. "People are frustrated…. She's the most senior member and we value that, but as the most senior member, you've got to give it to Trump. She has the power to challenge him, and she doesn't always do that."

De León seized on the discontent as he sought the party's endorsement.

"I'm running for the United States Senate because the days of Democrats biding our time, biting our tongue and triangulating at the margins are over," De León said. "And I'm running because California's greatness comes from acts of human audacity, not from congressional seniority."

De León, 51, still faces significant obstacles in his bid to topple a powerful, wealthy incumbent. He trails Feinstein by 29 percentage points in the most recent public poll and started the year with $360,000 compared with Feinstein's $10 million. If he had received the endorsement, he would have gained access to party resources and the ability to jointly raise funds with the party, which can receive unlimited contributions.

Feinstein's longtime political advisor, Bill Carrick, dismissed the significance of the endorsement vote as a beauty contest among party activists who do not represent the broader California electorate. He said that as a senior senator in Washington, Feinstein could not shower party regulars with as much attention as De León.

"He spent a lot of time working the party [events] over the years," Carrick said. "She's obviously a senator in Washington with a very serious day job."

Both candidates walked the convention halls courting delegates during the three-day weekend gathering as their supporters waved campaign signs and handed out buttons. De León handed out tacos and cups of horchata to his supporters, while Feinstein provided scrambled eggs and French toast during a rare appearance at a state party convention.

"There's a difference between Republicans and Democrats that I've noticed," Feinstein told the crowd at the breakfast she hosted for delegates. "Republicans tend to stick by their man no matter what. Democrats don't always. We fractionate. We divide. This must not happen. This great California house of Democrats must come together because we have a big job to see that this country gets straightened out."

Feinstein, 84, held a conference call for delegates earlier in the week and sent them mailers touting her accomplishments. But the senator from San Francisco is not a frequent presence at state party events, a point raised often over the weekend.

"We have not seen her in 25 years," Latino caucus chairman Carlos Alcala said to hoots from the audience after Feinstein chose not to address their meeting.

At a party labor caucus meeting, some in the crowd groaned and shook their heads when Feinstein said she had aligned with their interests on "every vote I know of in the U.S. Senate."

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And during her speech to delegates Saturday, music began playing as she ran past the five minutes allotted.

De León's supporters used the moment to chant "Time's up! Time's up!"

The at-times chilly reception is nothing new for Feinstein. When running for governor in 1990, she was booed during her speech before the state party convention for affirming her support for the death penalty — a moment her campaign filmed and turned into a television ad as testament to her independence. Feinstein did not win the party endorsement but did win the primary before losing in the general election.

Feinstein was warmly received by many delegates, including members of the party's women's caucus, who greeted her with a standing ovation.

"I think she's fabulous. I think she's the model for every young girl coming up. She's got more grit than some of the males that are in Congress right now," said Toni Rigoni, 65, a corporate event planner from San Jose. "Don't get me wrong. I'm all for change. I love change. I think it's important. But she has the know-how, she has the wit, she has the humor, she has the determination. She's a professional. She knows how Washington runs, and that's what we need."

The party is fractured between its more moderate members and its progressive wing, a divide that came into sharp relief during a bitterly contested chairman's race last year.

De León tried to appeal to the newly energized liberal faction by contrasting Feinstein's record — including votes for the Iraq war and warrantless wiretapping by the federal government — with his support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and single-payer healthcare. He also highlighted controversial comments Feinstein made last year calling for "patience" with Trump and expressing the hope that he could become "a good president."

Ilissa Gold, 31, president of the Miracle Mile Democratic Club, said she backed De León partly because of his antagonistic approach toward the president.

"We believe that California is on the forefront of the resistance to Donald Trump, and we believe we need a senator who is going to represent that," she said. "We very much respect her long service to California. We just believe that we're at a different point and time in this country, and it's time for a change in our leadership."

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Feinstein's supporters argue her long history of supporting progressive policy has been overlooked, including authoring the federal assault weapons ban and her decision to release a transcript of the Senate Judiciary Committee's interview of the co-founder of Fusion GPS, a firm that researched Trump during the 2016 campaign over the objections of Republicans.

"She is fighting hard and she has been her entire career, since she came to the Senate in 1992," said former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a longtime Feinstein confidante. "She's shown herself to be a stellar leader and an independent leader, and one that is completely in line with most Californians."

Cheryl Conway, 61, a delegate from Cayucos, said she wasn't surprised that Feinstein was snubbed by the party because, as an influential member of the Senate judiciary and intelligence committees, she sometimes has to put the nation's interest over the party's.

"Those who want a purity test are always going to be disappointed in a candidate," she said.

A retired staff member for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Conway voted to endorse Feinstein and said she still expects her to win reelection — even without the party nod.

"Dianne Feinstein is a big girl. She knows how to do this," she said.

Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.

For the latest on national and California politics, follow @LATSeema and @philwillon on Twitter.

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