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Capitol Journal: Think Feinstein is a shoo-in for another term? Don’t be shocked if voters shake things up

State Sen. Kevin de León addresses supporters during an L.A. event Wednesday to formally announce his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
State Sen. Kevin de León addresses supporters during an L.A. event Wednesday to formally announce his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Anyone who thinks U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has a lock on reelection is ignoring history. It’s rare, but it happens: An esteemed, powerful, senior politician is booted from office.

The political world is shocked. No one saw it coming — except the voters. They were stewing and wanted something different.

Don’t read this wrong. Feinstein is a heavy favorite to win her fifth full term next year. She has a solid record and has been a major player on foreign and domestic issues in Congress. She’s important.

She’ll have no trouble raising the tens of millions of dollars needed to defend herself against fellow Democrat Kevin de León, leader of the state Senate — or anyone else.

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Feinstein is no-nonsense articulate. And she’s relatively healthy at 84.

But let’s be honest: That age is her biggest vulnerability. She’d be 91 at the end of her term. That causes many people to pause, although if they ever talked with her directly their concerns would be answered.

De León, 50, is tiptoeing around the land-mine issue of ageism. I asked him Tuesday whether he thought Feinstein was too old for the Senate.

“Absolutely not,” he answered. “This is not about ageism. Absolutely not.”

He doesn’t need to challenge her on age. That issue is already is out there naturally. We in the media constantly point out she’s the oldest member of the Senate.

“This is about where she stands on key issues that the voters care about,” De León continued. “It’s a good thing for democracy that voters in California have a debate on contrasting ideas and values.”

Like what? De León mentioned Medicare-for-all, which he’s for and she’s against.

Also, he said, immigrant rights. A top priority for De León, whose mother migrated here illegally, is to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. But Feinstein also has been strongly pro-immigrant.

De León claims to be more pro-union than Feinstein. And she voted to authorize the Iraq war, something De León says he wouldn’t have done.

But looming large in the background is the taboo issue of age. This is gotten at by claiming that time has passed Feinstein by politically, that California is much more leftist — or “progressive” — than when she was first elected in 1992.

Yes, she’s a pragmatic, compromising centrist. De León also is very pragmatic, but flying the progressive banner.

An illustration of De León’s pragmatism is that he endorsed the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, over upstart Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary and over aging lefty Bernie Sanders last year.

It’s true that the California Democratic Party has become much stronger in the last quarter-century, largely because the GOP in this state has fallen on its face. But whether the electorate has moved significantly left is debatable.

The last two governors have been centrists — a Democrat and a Republican. Clinton beat Sanders in last year’s presidential primary. And in November, voters opposed a ballot measure to repeal the death penalty. Instead, they voted to speed up executions. Feinstein long has favored capital punishment.

But President Trump has stirred up California’s liberal activists unlike any agitator since the Vietnam War. And Democratic politicians find the president an easy and fruitful target.

Feinstein invited activists’ ridicule in late August when, during a San Francisco appearance, she called for “patience” with Trump and said she hoped “he has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president.”

Oops. Wrong thing to say. And she immediately knew it. She should publicly admit it was a dumb comment.

When I asked De León why he waited until Sunday to enter the race and didn’t get in before Feinstein officially did on Oct. 9 — he might have dissuaded her from running again — the legislator replied:

“When you’re an incumbent senator for 25 years, you’re not going to be intimidated. I’m respectful of her and her service to the state. But when her [San Francisco] comments were made … that offended my core values.”

Maybe so, but more likely the main reason he didn’t jump into the contest earlier is that this would have jeopardized his legislative leadership. Lawmakers want their leaders to focus on them, not on a personal bid for higher office.

De León’s tenure as Senate president pro tem now seems imperiled.

Whether he has any statewide appeal is untested. He’s practically unknown outside his Los Angeles district, and it will be difficult for him to raise enough money to get known.

Around the state Capitol, he’s considered a tenacious, energetic doer who can be charming or prickly. His personal legislative victories have included gun controls, fighting climate change and, this year, a “sanctuary state” bill.

Every so often, a change mood sweeps over the electorate, a product of human nature not confined to one party or excluding any era or region.

Examples: U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was stunningly upset in a 2014 primary. House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) — a pragmatic compromiser — was beaten by a Republican in 1994. In California, highly respected Sen. Thomas Kuchel, a Republican moderate, was beaten by a right-winger in the 1968 primary.

And, of course, there was Winston Churchill, the historic British prime minister who nobly led his nation through World War II and then was ungratefully dumped.

My guess is California voters will stick with Feinstein. She has been an exceptionally effective senator. But I won’t be shocked if voters want to shake it up.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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