The California Democratic Party (CDP) declined to endorse anybody in this year’s U.S. Senate race. Since the two most popular candidates are Democrats – one of whom will almost certainly win in November – some may see nothing more than a decision not to upset an apple cart that’s rolling downhill.
Still, the result is surprising if only because front runner Dianne Feinstein could muster just 37% of the vote of CDP delegates. Feinstein of course is the octogenarian San Franciscan who rose to national prominence forty years ago in the aftermath of the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Little known Kevin de Leόn copped 54% of the vote.
It is a measure of how far to the left the CDP has moved in the past year that it nearly endorsed a relative newcomer over the U.S. Senator whom one consultant calls California’s Daniel Webster. Although grassroots activists could not prevent drug company ally Eric Bauman from becoming the party’s chair last year, they did elect many progressives to the state’s dozens of central committees.
Team Feinstein minimized the vote’s importance claiming that the CDP voters are more progressive than most Democratic voters. They point to a January survey of likely Democratic voters that has Feinstein up 46 to 17 over De Leόn.
But Feinstein could be headed for rough waters. She will almost certainly lose the votes of white progressives who favor a socialist economic agenda and a pacifist foreign policy. Feinstein drew jeers at a town hall last year when she declared that she opposes Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan. She is one the party’s hawks and her less confrontational approach towards President Trump has also cost her support on the left.
When it comes to voters of color, Feinstein faces difficulties as well. Since de Leόn is Latino, he will likely have an advantage with that very sizable demographic. Feinstein’s relationship with the junior California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris has been contentious at times. This may hurt her with African American voters even though Harris has endorsed Feinstein.
Feinstein’s establishment backers may comfort themselves with her sizable advantage in the most recent poll but they should not be congratulating themselves just yet. Despite overwhelming name recognition, she could not scare up support from a majority of the Democrats surveyed.
Given CA’s top two primary system and the over 2 to 1 advantage that Democrats have statewide, Feinstein is very likely to have to square off against de Leόn twice – once in the June primary and then again in November. Assuming de Leόn makes it to the run-off, he will be very well-known to Californians when they go to the polls in November. I expect a nail biter.