Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León in his district office in Echo Park
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León in his district office in Echo Park
Danny Liao

Progressives Want a Feinstein Challenger. Could It Be Kevin de León?

The hot political rumor of the moment is that Kevin de León, the leader of the state Senate, is considering a run against longtime U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"My gut tells me Kevin is pretty close to being in," says California Democratic Party chair Eric Bauman. "I believe that he’s very, very seriously considering this."

De León's office did not respond to questions about whether he'll run.

"If he ran, I could see him getting a lot of national progressives on fire," says political consultant Mike Trujillo.

If Feinstein does face a viable challenger, the race would be nationally significant and have far-reaching implications for the Democratic Party as it seeks to retake control of Congress. Feinstein will be 85 when voters go to the polls in November 2018, and she'll be seeking her fifth six-year term. She is currently the ninth most senior Democrat senator — and in the Senate, seniority equals power.

At the same time, Feinstein is a moderate, and in today's polarized political climate that's not always a great label. She's angered progressives by calling for "patience" with Donald Trump, by opposing single-payer health care, by supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by being pro-death penalty, and so on.

Feinstein had been the subject of will-she-or-won't-she speculation for some time. When she finally did announce her candidacy, on Monday, a deluge of elected officials rushed to endorse her, including her fellow U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, A glut of early endorsements like that can often scare away potential challengers.

After Feinstein's announcement, New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin tweeted that a source had told him "Feinstein moved" because de León was about to do the same, and "she wanted to get out in front."

That prompted Daily Kos founder and progressive activist Markos Moulitsas to tweet:

Progressives are looking to draft a challenger to Feinstein. Shortly after Feinstein's announcement, Northern California congressman Ro Khanna, a Democrat, issued a press release calling Feinstein “out of touch with the grassroots.” Khanna told Politico that he had called former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and Rep. Barbara Lee, urging them to run.

A recent poll found that 50 percent of California's likely voters think Feinstein should retire.

De León, meanwhile, has been publicly angling for a fight with Feinstein. He objected to her "patience" with Trump comment, and over the weekend he went out of his way to draw a distinction between their positions on gun control.

"There are a lot of progressive activists who love Kevin and his vivaciousness, his willingness to challenge Trump and the Washington establishment," Bauman says.

The 50-year-old state senate president pro tem is termed out in 2018. De León had raised nearly $1.4 million in a bid to become lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial post. But he later passed on that race, his sights set on something with a bit more visibility (the lion's share of his $2.8 million statewide campaign war chest is not transferable to a federal campaign).

In the last year, de León has tried to position himself as one of the leaders of the Trump resistance and has steered the state senate toward passing key progressive legislation, notably a gas tax hike and the recent bill declaring California to be a sanctuary state, which he authored. He also signed off on the senate's controversial (and vague) plan to set up a single-payer health care system, which stalled in the State Assembly.

Most agree that if he does run against Feinstein, de León will be a long shot.

"I think it’s an uphill climb," says political consultant Steve Maviglio. "She’s pretty entrenched and has a lot of support. I think anyone will have a really hard time raising money against her, unless they’re self-financing."

The progressive (or, as some have called it, Bernie-crat) wing of California's Democratic Party, Maviglio points out, lost a spate of recent elections, including ones for Congress and State Assembly. A challenge to Bauman for party chair also failed.

"They make a lot of noise, but they’re not very good at winning elections," Maviglio says.

Many within the party would see a de León challenge as an affront, akin to Tea Party challenges that upended congressional Republican seats. Garcetti, speaking in Sacramento on Tuesday, said as much, describing a theoretical Feinstein primary challenge as "ripped from the corrosive playbook of our enemies."

Bauman agrees that the race would be a "heavy lift" for de León.

"I think these kinds of intra-party challenges often turn ugly, not because of the candidates but because of their supporters," Bauman says. "Dianne’s supporters will talk about what she’s done, about her stature in the Senate, a house that runs on seniority. Kevin’s supporters will say it’s time for change, that the 2016 election should have taught us that we need to be more aggressive and take a new approach.

"Kevin speaks to immigrants and young people in a way that’s unique," Bauman continues. "And I think many people are frustrated by the status quo — even though he’s a consummate insider — view him as an outsider with respect to Washington."

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