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Why a new progressive congressman has been pushing for a Democrat to challenge Feinstein

Why a new progressive congressman has been pushing for a Democrat to challenge Feinstein
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont), shown in June, won his seat by challenging an incumbent from his own party. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

California Democrat Ro Khanna won his House seat by beating an incumbent from his own party, and he's been urging others to do the same.

He's targeting 84-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who last week announced she would run for a fifth full term. Though many California Democrats instantly rallied around her, Khanna called her "out of touch with the grass roots" and said the endorsements showed "D.C. insiders continue to privilege protecting one of their own over voters' concerns."

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It was a bold, but not out of character, move for the Fremont representative who began his congressional career less than a year ago by beating Democratic incumbent Rep. Mike Honda, saying it was time for new leadership.

He is also the only member of Congress to back the progressive group Justice Democrats, which has pledged to run progressive candidates against incumbent Democrats, including Feinstein.

It's nothing personal, Khanna said in an interview. He just wants people with new ideas in Congress.

"Yes, they should be progressive, but my bigger interest is getting new people in there [with] new ideas," he said. "I feel like politics should be less personal, it should be more based on issues."

It's also not about Feinstein's age or because she'll soon have served four full terms, he said.

"It's much more about willingness to challenge the status quo," Khanna said. "I just think that renewal is good for democracy," adding that he backs 77-year-old House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has served for 30 years — longer than Feinstein.

He stepped up criticism of Feinstein last week, casting her as out of step with California voters for decades and lambasting her for not jumping to support single-payer healthcare or free college tuition, which have become progressive hallmarks. He said Pelosi is willing to consider such progressive ideas, while Feinstein is not.

Khanna is the only member of the delegation publicly talking about a desire for a new Democratic voice in the Senate, but he is not alone. There have long been rumblings among ambitious California politicos who believe Feinstein should retire in order to make room for the party's rising stars.

Khanna said he isn’t interested in the job, but last week rattled off a few people he thinks should take on Feinstein: former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff or Ted Lieu, and state Senate leader Kevin de León, who is planning to announce a Senate run Sunday.

None of the others Khanna mentioned have expressed interest in challenging Feinstein. Lee, considered one of the most liberal members of the House, said she will not run though she has not publicly backed Feinstein. Schiff and Lieu both said they support Feinstein's reelection.

"She's been a wonderful U.S. senator and I fully support her reelection," said Lieu, of Torrance. "I don't think we should spend our time trying to take out Democrat incumbents."

Khanna said that after beating an incumbent himself, he can't suddenly argue that Democrats shouldn't challenge their own.

"I feel like it would be hypocritical now for me to become an incumbent and close the drawbridge behind me," Khanna said.

Party members traditionally band together to protect incumbents, and those who don't can lose favor from leadership and suffer consequences, like weak committee assignments, or missing out on financial help for their campaigns. That hasn't appeared to happen to Khanna so far, and he said he's not feeling any blowback.

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"On 90% of things I feel like I have been very, very supportive of the party, but I don't think that means we don't have a balance of voices," Khanna said. "Maybe it's the entrepreneurial ecosystem I come out of in Silicon Valley."

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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