California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León is strongly considering challenging U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, in her 2018 reelection bid, according to sources close to the Los Angeles legislator.
One veteran California politician, who asked for anonymity to freely discuss the matter, said De León considered a campaign launch earlier this week. But the decision was delayed by Feinstein's Monday announcement that she would run for reelection, which had been expected later in the year, as well as by the wildfires ravaging the state.
CNN reported Thursday that De León intends to enter the race, attributing the story to three people with knowledge of his plans. Sources close to De León told the Los Angeles Times that, while he is leaning toward running, he has not yet made a final decision.
If De León challenges Feinstein, it could upend the 2018 election. Among the state's powerful Democratic elected officials and interests, the move would also probably be viewed as a display of disloyalty to a woman first elected to the Senate a quarter of century ago who is viewed nationally as a powerful and respected elder of the party.
De León's political advisors declined to comment Thursday, but a potential run by the state Senate leader has been the subject of widespread rumors that have heightened in recent weeks.
According to party insiders, De León's team has been reaching out to labor and party leaders about a potential mid-October launch.
Immediately after Feinstein announced her plans to run again, De León's colleagues in the state Senate were asked by his allies to "keep their powder dry" and refrain from endorsing anyone in the race yet, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
A top state Democratic leader told The Times that De León called him a couple of weeks ago seeking his advice on challenging the 84-year-old Feinstein. The leader, who also asked for anonymity to discuss the private conversation and is neutral in the race, ran through the obstacles De León was likely to face, from his lack of name identification among the state's voters to Feinstein's wealth and ability to self-fund a campaign.
"I told him despite all his notoriety for all of his good legislative accomplishments, most people don't know who the hell he is," the person said, adding that De León would also face a significant fundraising disadvantage.
Feinstein has long relationships with the donors in the state, and is wealthy enough to finance her own campaign. De León has raised money for his legislative races, but could not transfer that money to a federal campaign. And donors who are otherwise sympathetic to his cause might shy away from him to avoid angering Feinstein.
California's senior senator last faced a tough reelection battle in 1994. But in recent months, she has been criticized by liberal protesters who argue that she is too moderate to represent a state that has become home to "the resistance" to President Trump's agenda.
Talk of a potential primary challenge has grown so loud that on Tuesday night, the day after Feinstein announced that she was seeking reelection, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warned that such an election fight would harm the state.
"This cannibalistic approach, that somehow we should be at each other's throats right now … is wrong for Democrats and what California should be doing right now," Garcetti said as he introduced Feinstein at a Beverly Hills fundraiser, before ticking off Trump policies that the state needed to fight, such as a tax overhaul plan that could handicap large states and the efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. "We have a lot of work to do."
Republicans immediately seized upon the potential intraparty fracas.
"Democratic civil war is now out in the open in California, and every single Democratic House candidate in the state must pick a side," said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "There is no middle ground: These candidates either support Kevin de León and his radical agenda including single-payer [healthcare] and massive gas tax hikes, or they support Dianne Feinstein and all of her Schumer-Pelosi baggage."
Another potential candidate weighing a run is billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who believes Trump is "an existential challenge to our democracy," according to someone close to him.
"This is much, much less about Dianne Feinstein — though like a lot of folks it shocked [Steyer's] conscience when she suggested Trump could be a good president despite all the evidence to the contrary — and much more about the need to challenge the establishment and the party orthodoxy to actually get the Democratic Party back to fighting for people and not for the status quo," the Steyer confidant said.
Steyer has flirted with running for office previously. He nearly entered the 2016 U.S. Senate race, going so far as to hire top Democratic talent and locking down "Steyer for Senate" websites. He is among the nation's top Democratic donors and could easily self-fund a campaign.
But De León has been the subject of the greatest speculation in recent months as he has vocally criticized Feinstein.
He got his start in the early 1990s as an immigrant rights activist, organizing a massive downtown Los Angeles demonstration in 1994 against Proposition 187, the ballot initiative to cut off many government services to people in the country illegally.
After working for labor unions such as the California Teachers Assn. and on political campaigns, De León won his first elected office, a state Assembly seat, in 2006 and moved to the state Senate in 2010. In 2014, he was elected leader of the Senate — the first Latino to hold that post in more than 100 years.
Perhaps more than any other California politician, De León has personified the state's antagonism toward Trump, eagerly embracing the mantra of resistance against the federal government.
That posture was most evident in his signature legislation of the year, the so-called sanctuary state measure that curtails state and local law enforcement's communication with federal immigration officials.
Updated at 12:25 p.m.: This story was updated to add that a top state Democratic leader who described a conversation with De León is neutral in the Senate race.
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7:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about Tom Steyer.