by CARLA MARINUCCI and DAVID SIDERS · October 10, 2017
Hours after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (pictured) announced her reelection campaign Monday, Silicon Valley-based freshman Rep. Ro Khanna said he had urged fellow California Rep. Barbara Lee and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to challenge Feinstein. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES — In California, a lodestar for the left in the era of President Donald Trump, the Democratic establishment is besieged and fighting to hang on.
The state Democratic Party, until recently, has been caught in the throes of a bitter dispute over the chairmanship, pitting party veterans against the activist “Berniecrat” wing. There are calls for Nancy Pelosi to step down as House Democratic leader. And Dianne Feinstein is now the target of progressives determined to prevent her from winning a fifth Senate term.
The simmering conflict has implications that reach far beyond the state’s borders. The outcome stands to shape the national party’s leadership, its ideological bent and even its finances, given California’s status as the party’s essential fundraising hub.
“There’s no question that both parties have veered sharply away from the political center, and there’s a sizable and growing portion of the Democratic base that does want their party to take a different direction,” said Dan Schnur, a political analyst who worked in Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration. “Political parties don’t come with on-off switches. They have dimmer knobs.”
At the moment, the old guard is holding fast.
In the year since Hillary Clinton pummeled Bernie Sanders in the California presidential primary, Democrats here have rejected anti-establishment candidates for Congress and the state party chairmanship. When Rep. Linda Sánchez, a California member of House Democratic leadership, rattled the party last week by saying publicly that it’s time for the 77-year-old Pelosi “to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders,” her remarks were greeted with silence within the California Democratic delegation.
Pelosi, a former state party chairwoman and fixture in California politics since the 1980s, might be losing her once-firm grip on the House Democratic Caucus, she continues to enjoy widespread support within her home state delegation — the largest in the House — in part for her prodigious fundraising.
“On political grounds, it’s absurd — it’s someone pursuing a cheap headline, frankly,” said longtime Democratic political strategist Bob Shrum. “Nancy Pelosi is, strategically, the best person we have, in terms of contesting these House seats. She works nonstop to raise money. Ingratitude is a staple in politics — but this is a pretty extreme example of it.”
Still, there’s no drumbeat within the party to deny Pelosi another term in Congress — as there is with Feinstein, California’s 84-year-old senior senator.
Progressive activists have sought to make inroads in California since before the presidential primary election last year. But Sanders’ loss singed progressive Democrats — Sanders once called the West Coast “probably the most progressive part of America” — who have become increasingly anxious as President Donald Trump’s first year wears on.
In one outgrowth of the Clinton-Sanders primary, Kimberly Ellis, who was endorsed by Our Revolution, the successor group to Sanders’ presidential campaign, nearly toppled Eric Bauman — himself a progressive, but a longtime party figure — in this year’s bitter race for state party chair.
Feinstein, a centrist Democrat, is the next target. Hours after she announced her reelection campaign Monday, Silicon Valley-based freshman Rep. Ro Khanna said he had urged fellow California Rep. Barbara Lee and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to challenge Feinstein.
Khanna told POLITICO that the senator does not represent progressive values on issues including privacy, foreign policy and technology innovation, saying “She was totally out of touch when the whole debate happened on encryption,’’ when Apple and law enforcement battled over phone data in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre.
Khanna, who backed Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary last year, also criticized Feinstein’s skeptical view of single-payer health care, a favorite cause of the progressive wing.
He’s not alone. Following Feinstein’s reelection announcement, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal Daily Kos blog, said in a tweet directed at state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who is mulling running against the senator, “Hey @kdeleon, let’s talk! We share a common interest in this Senate race. Let’s beat the most pro-Trump Blue-state Dem in the country!”
On Twitter, some of the party’s leftist activists began marshaling the hashtag #DraftReich, but also circulated names of other people they’re hoping could be drafted for a primary contest against Feinstein — including progressive Democrat Rep. Ted Lieu, a regular tormentor of Trump on Twitter, and CNN political commentator Van Jones. Other Democrats looking at a potential primary challenge include wealthy Orange County progressive businessman Joseph Sanberg and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer.
But in her reelection campaign rollout, Feinstein moved to blunt any momentum progressives might have. She was endorsed immediately by California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, as well as by former Sen. Barbara Boxer and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a frontrunner for governor in 2018.
Within minutes of Feinstein’s announcement, Harris urged progressives to donate to her colleague’s cause, saying, “Dianne is someone who sticks to her ideals and achieves results regardless of what makes for good politics or what her powerful opponents may say.”
Jerry Roberts, the veteran California journalist who wrote Feinstein’s biography, “Never Let Them See You Cry,’’ said Pelosi has told him, “There’s not a single person above the rank of sergeant in the Democratic Party who wants there to be a Democratic fight for Senate in California — because all that is is tens of millions of dollars going to a silly fight when they’re trying to defend and take over seats” in Congress.
“There are folks who think it’s time for change,” said Bauman, the state Democratic Party chairman. “But I also think that … just because somebody’s loud doesn’t define how big they are, how much verve they really have.”
Noting the relatively favorable public approval ratings of the state’s incumbent Democrats, Bauman said, “Is there enough frustration for change to really occur? I don’t know.”
Whether for Feinstein or any other establishment Democrat running for office, the state’s “top two’’ or jungle primary system could lend some shelter from the storm – it provides a strategic boost in case of a challenge from the left. Under the system, in which the top two finishers in the primary advance to a runoff regardless of party affiliation, a progressive challenger would likely have to beat Feinstein twice, first in the primary, then in the general election — an expensive and daunting prospect.
Together, Feinstein’s reelection announcement and Pelosi’s ability to brush off criticism from Sánchez served as a reminder of the establishment’s power. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, once considered a potential Senate candidate himself, is hosting a fundraiser for Feinstein in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night, and Newsom — a favorite of progressives — called her a “tough-as-nails, thoughtful leader who gets it and gets it done for us in DC.”
“We are in this moment of an intraparty fight in California between … the progressive liberal and the more establishment candidates,” said Jessica Levinson, a Los Angeles-based political analyst. “But the progressives don’t have a lot of victories to point to, and if we look at who’s voting, it’s still the people who are older and whiter and, frankly, more establishment.”