De León (D-Los Angeles) announced his candidacy Sunday morning with a highly-produced campaign video emailed to supporters.
“I know this race – going up against a longtime incumbent – won’t be easy,” De León told Capital Public Radio in an interview Sunday. “But this state needs a different and new kind of leadership. And I’m ready to take on that role.”
Feinstein, who at 84 years old is the oldest current member of the Senate, announced she’s running for a fifth full term in 2018. She was first elected in 1992, successfully running alongside Barbara Boxer in what was dubbed “the year of the woman.”
“I'm ready for a good fight,” Feinstein told NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, one day before announcing her re-election bid. “I've got things to fight for. I'm in a position where I can be effective. And hopefully, that means something to California.”
De León said Democrats cannot be complacent as President Trump seeks to "eviscerate" programs critical to Californians.
“If you speak to a ‘Dreamer’ right now who’s very scared of being detained and deported, a young woman who’s spent the vast majority of her life in this great state of California, she doesn’t have the patience to wait around to see if Donald Trump will turn out to be a good president,” De León said, referring to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and whose fates are now in limbo.
That's a shot at a comment Feinstein made in August, when she said she believes Trump “can be a good president” – but only if he can “learn and change.”
The quote quickly fired up progressives who have long criticized Feinstein for not being sufficiently liberal. Feinstein has long balanced progressive stances on gun control and the Supreme Court with a moderate fiscal record and a more hawkish foreign policy.
Enter De León, the ambitious, termed-out state Senate leader who authored the new law to make California a “sanctuary state.” Born Kevin Alexander Leon to a single immigrant mother with what he describes as a “third-grade education,” the 50-year-old De León rose to the post of Senate President pro Tem in 2014. Now, he’s one of many younger California Democrats who seek a more prominent role nationwide.
“We’ve taken very aspirational, progressive goals and objectives, and we actually have manifested them into real laws that have had a huge impact on everyday Californians,” De León said.
The Feinstein campaign says De León is simply a term-limited politician looking for a new job and questioned his progressive credentials.
“Has he done things that are progressive? Sure,” said Feinstein strategist Bill Carrick. “Is he a leader, a progressive leader of the resistance? No.”
Carrick noted De León endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination over Bernie Sanders in 2016 – and over Barack Obama in 2008.
“Dianne has been out there on every issue that progressives care about,“ Carrick said, including leading fights for gun control and against the president's nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.
De León may not be the only challenger Feinstein faces from the left. For example, billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has signaled he’s considering whether to enter the race. No prominent Republican has committed to run yet.
“To have a debate – even an intraparty debate – is always a positive thing,” De León said Sunday. “As long as it’s done with respect, as long as it’s done with dignity – it’s a good thing for California.”
With De León’s entrance, California’s Senate race immediately takes on national significance. Much as Tea Party challengers to the Republican establishment shifted the GOP to the right over the last several election cycles – and potentially even more so in 2018 – this campaign could determine whether the Democratic Party will shift away from the center as well.
Unlike other states with traditional primary systems, the top two finishers in California’s June primary – regardless of political party – will advance to the November runoff, meaning Feinstein could have to stave off a challenge from within her own party twice.
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