California Democrats last weekend sent what pretty much everyone agrees was a stinging rebuke to Dianne Feinstein, their state’s senior senator. A majority of the delegates at the state party’s annual convention voted against endorsing Feinstein in her bid for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate. Instead, by a vote of 54 percent to 37 percent, they backed the challenger on her left, state Senate leader Kevin de León. Adding insult to injury, while Feinstein was addressing delegates earlier in the weekend, she was interrupted by music after she went over her allotted five minutes. A group of de León supporters quickly seized the opportunity to serenade the 84-year-old with chants of “Time’s up!”
And yet as embarrassing as this weekend was for Feinstein, it could have been much worse. That’s because under state party rules, a candidate needed to garner 60 percent of the vote to secure the coveted endorsement—and with it, access to the resources of the state party and the ability to jointly raise funds with it. So while de León left the convention in San Diego with a moral victory and some needed momentum, he came up just short of leaving with what he really needs right now: access to cash, and lots of it.
As I explained earlier this month, despite vocal and persistent criticism from progressives that Feinstein is too moderate for her state’s voters, she remains the odds-on favorite this November. In a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll, conducted late last month, Feinstein led de Léon by 29 percentage points among likely voters, 46 percent to 17 percent. Given the makeup of the convention crowd, Feinstein wasn’t expected to clear the 60-percent threshold. But it’s also clear that she’s doing just fine in the fundraising department without the help of her state party. At last count, she had $10 million on hand; de León had $360,000.
Thanks to California’s unique “jungle primary”—which advances the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party—de Léon still has time. No other candidate has emerged as a credible challenger, meaning the June primary will mostly just be a test run for the general election. But if de Léon is going to push Feinstein into retirement six years early as many progressives are hoping, something is going to have to change, and soon. Convincing liberals to donate their money and time to help him oust a sitting Democratic senator, as moderate as Feinstein is, is a serious challenge today; it’s going to be that much more of one after the primary, when everyone’s focus will increasingly turn to the races that will determine control of Congress—something an all-Democrat Senate race in California won’t impact.
It’s of course possible that, weeks from now, what just happened in San Diego will look in hindsight like an early signal that a shift in this race is on the way. At the least, it suggests that the progressive rage against Feinstein that can be found easily online can be found IRL as well. And it could also turn into a small fundraising boost for de Léon. But by itself, this one convention vote—of less than 3,000 delegates—doesn’t fundamentally change this race. As rough a weekend as Feinstein just had, she can take solace in that.