The Slatest

Can Anything Stop Dianne Feinstein’s Re-Election?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After being embarrassed by progressives at her own state convention, Sen. Dianne Feinstein keeps chugging along toward re-election in California. A new poll this week has the five-term senator up 26 points on state Senate leader Kevin de León, the only thing standing between her and re-election this November.

The Public Policy Institute of California poll, released Wednesday, found Feinstein with the support of 42 percent of likely voters in the state, compared with only 16 percent for de León, the only other candidate listed on the survey (margin of error: 3.4 points). Both of those numbers are down slightly from January, when the same pollsters found Feinstein up 46 percent to 17 percent, and from this past November, when Feinstein was up 45 percent to 21 percent. Those splits aren’t great for an incumbent, but they look pretty good given the near-constant criticism Feinstein has faced from the left. Their case against her is a long one, and includes her vote in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and her current opposition to single-payer health care.

California’s unique “jungle primary” advances the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party, but Republicans were unable to recruit a big-name candidate of their own. That has made Feinstein both the moderate and the conservative in what is effectively a two-person primary, one that is little more than a dry run for an all-Democratic general election.

If there is a silver lining for de Léon, it’s a small one: 39 percent of likely voters—and 71 percent of Republicans—say they have not yet made up their mind. But if de Léon is going to mount a serious challenge, he is going to have to start changing some minds, and soon. In theory, some slice of conservative voters could pull the lever for de Léon on Election Day, if for no other reason than they’ve been conditioned to view Feinstein, a bold-faced name in California politics for four decades, as the enemy. But that’s a stretch given de Léon’s campaign is built specifically on the premise that he’s the progressive in the race. Meanwhile, convincing the left 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 a far bigger one after the primary, when everyone’s focus will turn to those races that will determine control of Congress—or perhaps the one for California governor’s mansion, which may not be an all-Democratic contest after all.

The new poll suggests Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor, has padded his lead in the gubernatorial race, but the real action is happening behind him. The survey found Newsom with the support of 28 percent of likely voters, up five points from January, suggesting he’s been unharmed by a recent attempt from a long-shot candidate to remind voters of a decade-old sex scandal in which Newsom, then the mayor of San Francisco, had an affair with a staffer who was married to his campaign manager and friend. (Newsom admitted to the affair in 2007 and has since won statewide office twice.)

The pollsters found that Republican John Cox, a San Diego venture capitalist, has moved into second place with 14 percent, barely ahead of Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor at 12 percent. The second-place finisher would earn a head-to-head showdown with Newsom in November. Another Republican, Travis Allen, was in a relatively close fourth with 10 percent, followed by two other Democrats in the single digits. That’s quite a change from January, when Villaraigosa was in a virtual tie with Newsom for first, and Cox was well back in single digits with the rest of the field.

Unlike elsewhere in the state, where Democrats fear the combination of a jungle primary and a bunch of Democratic congressional candidates will be a recipe for an all-GOP general election, that doesn’t appear to be a problem in the gubernatorial race. Newsom remains safely out in front, as he has been since pollsters began tracking the race this past fall, likely ensuring Democrats at least one spot in the general election. The big question between now and the June 5 primary is whether they can snag the second as well—or if Republicans will rally around either Cox or Allen and push him clear of Villaraigosa and into the general.