Capitol Journal: Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a good bet to win reelection, serve a final term and retire reluctantly

Sen. Dianne Feinstein greets her challenger, state Sen. Kevin de León, after their debate Wednesday in San Francisco. At center is debate monitor Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)
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U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a virtual shoo-in for reelection. That’s what the polls show. But they also show her support to be soft.

This is what I mean: In the June primary election, Feinstein received 44% of the vote. That was far more than the scanty 12% garnered by state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), the second-place finisher in a 32-candidate field. But Feinstein hasn’t been able to expand her support for the Nov. 6 general election.

A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll shows her at 44% among likely voters, with De León trailing at 31%. There’s a whopping 25% who are undecided, despite the fact that Feinstein has been a U.S. senator for nearly 26 years and was a high-profile San Francisco mayor before that.


If you leave out the undecideds, however, Feinstein is ahead by 59% to 41%.

Similarly, a poll last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found Feinstein leading De León by 40% to 29%, with 31% undecided or not planning to vote. De León had cut Feinstein’s lead in half since July.

Feinstein, at 85 seeking her fifth full term, might be vulnerable against a stronger opponent. The big problem for De León, 51, is that hardly anyone knows who he is outside of Sacramento, where he was the state Senate leader. And he can’t raise enough money to get known through TV ads. Political donors don’t invest in presumed losers. It’s the classic Catch-22.

Ironically, De León’s biggest support group is the GOP. In the Dornsife/Times poll, Republican voters prefer him over Feinstein by 43% to 21%, with 35% undecided. And those who approve of President Trump’s job performance support De León by 41% to 18%.

That, of course, is laughable. It’s not an expression of fondness for De León. It’s Republicans slinging rocks at their perceived archenemy Feinstein — and a sign of how polarized and cynical our politics has become.

Never mind that Feinstein is a moderate who, among other things, has fought for water development to help farmers in the Republican-dominated Central Valley.

And no Republican being intellectually honest could vote for De León, an outspoken leader of the anti-Trump resistance in California. He’s the author of the “sanctuary state” law abhorred by Republicans that protects undocumented immigrants against federal agents. De León has pushed some of the most liberal legislation produced by Sacramento.


But to have a decent showing on election day, De León needs Republican votes. He can’t have GOP voters stiffing the race because no Republican is running.

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Democrats back Feinstein by 60% to 25%, even though the activist-dominated California Democratic Party endorsed De León.

The two held what passed for a debate Wednesday in San Francisco. It’ll be their only face-to-face confrontation of the campaign. There was no television — not even radio. It was a webcast and a small audience. The Public Policy Institute of California sponsored the event, billing it as a “conversation.” The group’s president, Mark Baldassare, asked the questions.

It was Feinstein’s first campaign debate since 2000. That’s because front-runners don’t like to provide their little-known underdog opponents with free public forums. Also, they don’t want to risk saying something really stupid.


No hard punches were landed, let alone a knockout blow. There were a few taps on the shoulder.

De León’s main campaign pitch is that Feinstein has lost touch with ordinary Californians and is too easy on Trump and Republicans.

“I wish Democrats in Washington would fight like hell for ‘Dreamers,’ just the way Donald Trump and Republicans fight like hell for their stupid wall,” De León said, referring to young people brought to the country illegally as children by their immigrant parents.

“We need Democrats in Washington that have the courage of their convictions, to not just be on the sidelines, but on the front lines.”

Feinstein, who indeed has fought for Dreamers, responded with a note of reality.

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“There is a lock on power in Washington,” she said. “When you have both houses and the White House controlled by one party, it’s extraordinarily difficult. It’s like hitting your head against a concrete wall.


“You can march, you can filibuster, you can talk all night. It doesn’t change anything. What changes things are elections.”

Feinstein and De León agreed on several issues, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $17-billion twin water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. They both oppose the project.

With climate change, De León said, “I’m not convinced” there’ll be enough snowmelt to make the tunnels worthwhile. “Dual tunnels, I’m simply not there.”

“I’m not in favor of that proposal,” Feinstein said. “Going deep underground with these big [40-foot wide, 35-mile] tunnels doesn’t make a great deal of sense.” Maybe a single tunnel, she added. “That’s as far as I would go.”

Feinstein’s style of compromise and civility is at odds with today’s smash-mouth politics propagated by Trump. De León represents the more combative wing of the Democratic Party.

But during the debate, he was careful not to convey disrespect for the veteran senator and tarnish himself. He expects to run for other offices in the future. Likely possibilities are Los Angeles City Council in 2020 and mayor in 2022.


Feinstein is a good bet to win reelection, serve a final term and retire reluctantly.

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