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De León's challenge in the Senate race: to oppose Feinstein but keep his future intact

De León's challenge in the Senate race: to oppose Feinstein but keep his future intact
Kevin de León, California state Senate president pro tem and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, greets supporters after speaking during an election party June 5 in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)

Kevin de León stresses that he isn’t naive about his chances of taking down Sen. Dianne Feinstein in November’s general election.

“I recognize that the vast majority of Californians don’t know me. This is the opportunity now to get to know the voters,” De León said after last week’s primary, in which he won the second spot on the ballot for the U.S. Senate seat, but lagged far behind the incumbent, a fellow Democrat. “I’m going to roll up my sleeves and go corner-to-corner in California.”

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It’s a formidable hill to climb in five months.

Feinstein got more than 44% of the vote in the primary, compared with just under 12% for De León. Her campaign has $7 million in the bank, 10 times more than De León has going into the general election. And while De León would like to frame Feinstein’s lead as a result of name recognition, he failed to beat her even among the voters who presumably know him best, in his state Senate district in Northeast Los Angeles, parts of which he has represented in Sacramento for a decade.

“We are not completely crazy, we know we have our work cut out for us, but we have an opportunity here,” De León’s campaign manager Courtni Pugh said.

Outside analysts say the 51-year-old state senator faces a difficult choice about how full-throated a campaign to wage against the popular, 84-year-old incumbent.

California Democratic political strategist Garry South said De León’s best shot would be to strongly make the case that Feinstein, who has long portrayed herself as a political moderate, is out of touch with an increasingly liberal California.

“He’s got to go right at Democrats and make the case that she’s out of sync with where most Democrats are on a wide range of issues, even though she’s made some last-minute shifts,” South said. “In every campaign and any campaign a candidate has to use what they’ve got. You have to take the advantages that you feel you have, you have to take the record they have.”

UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser, however, said a more realistic goal would be for De León to use the race to gain the name recognition needed to run for another statewide office in the future.

“He may push Dianne Feinstein to the left, and he can draw distinctions about some of their policy differences, and I think that’s safe,” Kousser said. “What he doesn’t want to do is talk about her as old and claim she is wildly out of touch with California.”

“He has to sort of take a Hippocratic Oath and do no harm to his future political career,” Kousser said, adding that the plan could be to “lose gracefully and lose up.”

Either way, De León is going to have to run a lean, underdog operation. Not only is the $700,000 he had in the bank at the end of the primary one-tenth of Feinstein’s campaign cash, but her personal wealth means she can contribute additional money if she has to.

Over and over, De León has said that when directly compared with Feinstein’s record, his progressive message connects with voters.

De León, who served four years as leader of the state Senate, was instrumental in passing the state’s landmark climate-change law, as well as legislation to enact a single-payer healthcare system in California. He has a long history working on immigration issues, gun control and legalizing marijuana use.

“They haven’t seen that contrast, but to see that contrast in a state of the magnitude and size of California you do need resources, obviously. I’m not naive. I understand that,” De León said.

Now, he says, getting into the general election matchup “opens up the huge possibility that more resources will be invested in the Senate race.”

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Others question how likely donors are to fill his coffers at this point, when he trails Feinstein by such a large margin.

“Who wants to spend money on a Democrat-on-Democrat civil war?” Kousser said. “There’s no blood in the water. That’s what the sharks of campaign finance respond to.”

Billionaire Democratic donor and activist Tom Steyer, one of De León’s best known supporters, said he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll spend money through an independent expenditure committee for what he acknowledged will be a particularly difficult race.

“Obviously 44% is not that far from 50%, so he’s got a daunting task, but that’s five months away,” Steyer said.

De León says his theme will be that he represents the “California of today and not yesterday. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to have generational change in leadership in Washington.”

How that translates into broad-enough support to close the gap, however, is unclear.

Uncertified election results show that even with 31 primary opponents, Feinstein won every county in the state by a large margin, including a dominant majority in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, where De León had his best showing.

Feinstein is considered the more moderate candidate in the general election, and the one more likely to get the votes of those who have no party preference as well as Republicans — to the extent that they vote in the race at all.

In the primary, De León pushed Feinstein to the left, prompting her to announce changes to long-held positions on marijuana and the death penalty. And he’s pushed her repeatedly on an early perception that Feinstein wasn’t doing enough to resist the Trump administration. Her tone has hardened in the last year as she has more vocally opposed the president’s policies, while De León has embraced a role as leader of the anti-Trump resistance.

But running to Feinstein’s left is more a strategy for a primary than for a general election.

Chapman University associate professor of political science Fred Smoller said there's a chance Feinstein could lose if the election features a liberal, anti-Trump wave, but that’s not really in the candidates’ hands.

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“If Trump goes even further south, then the more progressive people like De León might have a chance, just because she is there and is part of the establishment," Smoller said.

He expects De León to try to capitalize on Latino and progressive votes, but doubts that’s a broad enough coalition to win.

“I don’t see it,” he said. “She won that top-two decisively.”

Pugh, De León’s campaign manager, said he doesn’t plan to go after only the California Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

“I don’t think he’s going to cede any ground,” she said. “We’ll make an appeal to everyone that is available to us.”

At least 900,000 Californians, or 30%, voted for a Democrat in the primary who was not Feinstein, and Pugh said reaching them will be part of De León’s strategy.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to build that coalition and make it grow,” Pugh said.

Forcing the incumbent to engage directly could be another challenge for De León. Feinstein could stay in Washington, D.C., and let the campaign play out largely on the airwaves, a fairly common move in such a populous state. She was the first candidate to air ads during the primary and has more than enough cash to continue to run them.

South said even if it’s in her best interest politically, he’s not convinced Feinstein will be able to avoid wading into the fray with De León.

“I just don’t think psychologically she has it in her to hide back in D.C. while you have this dynamic, aggressive 50-year-old Latino candidate running around saying she’s out of touch,” South said. “She’s not going to be capable of just allowing him to maraud around in California criticizing her in every burg and hamlet without responding to it.”

Not having Feinstein in the state to contrast himself to could be a problem for De León, who seemed to try to draw Feinstein out in an opening dig on election day.

"I’ll have to go corner to corner to talk with California voters,” he said after voting. “It’s more laborious, but I'll take that any day over sitting in Washington and controlling the airwaves with millions of dollars.”

Feinstein’s strategist, Bill Carrick, pointed out that the Senate is scheduled to be in session for much of the next five months, especially now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he plans to cancel the August recess.

“She’s going to do her job, and that’s just the reality,” Carrick said. “But we’re going to be moving around the state, so if I was the De León people I wouldn’t be worried about that.”

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