De Leon’s Dilemma: He’s Got to Attack Feinstein

CALBUZZ--Kevin de Leon, the Democratic state Senate leader who wants to be a United States senator has a problem: Before he can make a compelling case for himself, he’s got to convince voters that after 24 years, they should fire U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

It’s an axiom of politics: To take out an incumbent, you’ve first got to persuade voters that the person in office must go. Only then can you convince them you should have the job.

In his announcement on Sunday, de Leon didn’t lay a glove on Feinstein. Of course it would have been churlish and needlessly negative for a guy who’s a virtual unknown to most voters throughout California to open with an attack on the venerable senator.

But he’ll have to do it sooner rather than later. And it’s not clear he’s ready to do that.

As if to prove the point, when Maeve Reston of CNN, our old friend from the L.A. Times, asked de Leon to name two issues where he’s more progressive than Feinstein, “he said too soon to talk ‘details’” Reston tweeted on Monday.

De Leon’s Game Plan According to one de Leon campaign insider, this is intentional: De Leon, who is 50, first hopes to make the case for himself as a vital, aggressive, dynamic, energetic leader before he portrays Feinstein, who is 84, as an acquiescent, compromising appeaser whose time has come and gone.

Precisely what string of Feinstein votes and stances de Leon will use – for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act; against an immediate shift to single-payer, universal health care; her “patience” with President Donald Trump – has yet to play out. He might even call for Trump’s impeachment, which Feinstein likely can’t support as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Select Committee on Intelligence.

What he can’t do – overtly – is attack Feinstein as too old, although his strongest asset may be that he’s 34 years younger and she’d be 91 at the end of another term. “He doesn’t have to say and should not say she’s too old,” said Democratic strategist Garry South. “It will be obvious to people.”

South agreed that, if he wants to be elected, de Leon will have to make the case that Feinstein should be given a pink slip – and that’s no easy task. (And a lot of heavy-hitting Democrats are going to be really pissed off when he does.)

Here Comes the Oppo “You’d have to go back and string together every vote Dianne Feinstein has taken in the U.S. Senate that may have been OK at the time but now doesn’t resonate with California voters. You’d have to paint her to be out of step with where Democratic voters are today.”

On the other hand, South said, even a strong campaign seeking to portray Feinstein as out of sync with California voters will be a difficult challenge: “Voters have elected her to the Senate five times!”

There’s little question that California voters in general, and Democrats in particular, are more liberal than they were when Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992. But as Hillary Clinton’s comfortable victory over Bernie Sanders in 2016 demonstrated, it’s not easy for a left-liberal to carry California over a well-funded woman candidate – even in a Democratic primary (the Feinstein-de Leon match-up, of course, is an open primary).

And while de Leon should score well among Latino voters, Feinstein already has the imprimatur of the United Farm Workers union – a powerful endorsement from a group with serious credibility throughout the Latino community. (N.B. revenge, served cold: de Leon won his first seat in the Legislature in 2006 by beating Christine Chavez, granddaughter of St. Cesar.)

DiFi’s Trump Gaffe What Feinstein can’t escape are her public comments on President Trump during an interview with former U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher at the Commonwealth Club.

“Look, this man is going to be president, most likely for the rest of this term,” she said. “I just hope he has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”

Already, that blunder helped fuel a Super PAC launched Monday by consultants Dave Jacobson and Maclan Zilber (whose former clients include de Leon) who cooked up a digital video attacking Trump and supporting de Leon.

“It’s clear that Washington’s status quo has failed. We need bold leaders who will stand up and say enough is enough!,” the video says. “Kevin de León has led the resistance against Donald Trump in California, showing we can lead the nation on climate change, better jobs, universal healthcare and immigrant rights.”

Whether de Leon can appropriate “¡Basta Ya!” and turn it against Feinstein remains to be seen. But unless he can, he’s got no chance.

P.S. Friend of Calbuzz Seema Mehta alertly reports in the LAT tonight that SCN strategies, the firm anchored by the relentless Ace Smith, now has launched a super PAC on her behalf: “We see the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Senate under attack by political opportunists, and we are determined to fight just as hard for her as she fights for California,” said partner Sean Clegg.

(Jerry Roberts is a California journalist who writes, blogs and hosts a TV talk show about politics, policy and media. Phil Trounstine is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, former communications director for California Gov. Gray Davis and was the founder and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. This piece appeared in CalBuzz.

-CW