Most of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Golden State colleagues in the House are declining to endorse her reelection bid in its earliest stages, highlighting the frustrations of younger Democrats bristling at the perceived lack of upward mobility for future party leaders.
The Hill contacted the offices of all 39 Democrats in California’s House delegation over the past week to gauge the level of support for the veteran incumbent seeking a fifth full term. Twelve have endorsed Feinstein; one is backing state Sen. Kevin de León; a handful said they’re staying neutral; and most did not respond at all.
The silence comes amid an escalating clamor for generational change among a growing crop of aspiring Democrats who are frustrated with their minority status in both chambers and are eager to remake the party’s image.
And while Feinstein’s campaign says it’s too early to judge the strength of de León’s bid — and they’re confident in the endorsements they’ve won so far — there’s also a sense that the coming primary could be her most challenging to date. With that in mind, they’re leaving nothing to chance.
Feinstein, 84, is already working the phones furiously, said Bill Carrick, her lead political strategist, and the campaign has set its fundraising goal at a whopping “$30 million — minimum.”
“She is going to take this very seriously,” Carrick said Monday by phone, “but it’s not clear what kind of candidate he’s going to be.”
Feinstein’s policy chops and seniority have put her at the front lines of some of Capitol Hill’s most crucial debates, most notably the ongoing investigations into Russia’s election meddling, which she’s pursued doggedly from her perch as senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and a top member of the Intelligence panel. And the lawmakers rushing to back Feinstein this year, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are quick to tout that experience as an invaluable asset to the party.
“Senator Feinstein is one of the most thoughtful, substantive and effective leaders in Congress,” Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted earlier this month.
“We need her leadership now more than ever.”
But critics maintain that Feinstein has grown out of touch with a state that’s moved to the left since she first came to Washington in 1992. They’re pointing to recent comments urging Democrats to have “some patience” with President Trump and remarks she made last month suggesting that former President Obama may have overstepped his legal authority in creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — an argument Trump made in dismantling DACA, and one most Democrats have rejected out of hand.
“This is not the same state it was 25 years ago,” said Roger Salazar, spokesman for de León’s campaign, citing “a hunger for new leadership.”
Democracy for America, a liberal activist group founded by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, quickly endorsed de León, 50, characterizing him as the more tenacious liberal voice needed to counter Trump. And Rep. Ro Khanna, a freshman Democrat representing California’s Silicon Valley, has echoed that message, saying a strong primary challenge to Feinstein will excite grass-roots Democrats.
“Our party was the strongest in modern times after the 2008 primary election between Obama and Hillary [Clinton]. Both Obama and Hillary helped energize voters,” Khanna told The Hill on Monday. “I am confident that a competitive election for the California Senate Seat will do the same and help us take seven seats back in California.”
Carrick said Feinstein’s campaign had $4 million in cash on hand before raising an additional $400,000 in the week after Feinstein announced her reelection bid on Oct. 9. Salazar acknowledged that de León won’t be able to keep up with Feinstein’s fundraising — “We’re clearly not going to compete with her dollar-for-dollar,” he said — but the campaign is confident it can raise enough money to stage a stiff challenge. Salazar declined to put a figure on the campaign’s fundraising goal.
Aside from Khanna, Salazar said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) has also endorsed de León, though Gomez’s office did not confirm that claim.
Thirteen California Democrats — a full third of the delegation — are members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), and only one, Blue Dog Rep. Jim Costa, has publicly endorsed Feinstein.
The CHC’s campaign arm, known as Bold PAC, is known for bucking the party establishment to endorse Hispanic candidates, as it did last year in backing former Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) in her unsuccessful bid for Senate against now Sen. Kamala Harris (D).
Neither Bold PAC nor its chairman, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), responded to requests for comment, but several Democratic aides said the PAC’s endorsement of de León is likely.
The push for generational change atop the Democratic ranks has been a continuing storyline within a party that lost the House majority in 2010 and ceded the Senate in 2014. The debate was renewed recently when Rep. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), the fifth-ranking House Democrat and former head of the CHC, called for a new leadership team in the House after 14 years under Pelosi.
Sánchez is among the long list of California Democrats who have declined to weigh in on the Feinstein primary.
Some of Feinstein’s backers are lashing out at those restive lawmakers, characterizing them as opportunists simply looking to advance their own careers.
“There is no push in the party [for generational change],” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who called Feinstein “an incredibly important asset.”
“It’s just some people who use generational change as a way to advance themselves.”
Garamendi predicted Feinstein will “crush anybody” in both the primary and general elections. And he offered a warning to de León.
“He’s making a big mistake,” he said. “He will not advance his career. He may very well terminate his career.”