The top Democratic challenger to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has raised concerns that she doesn’t fully grasp the depth of Californians’ opposition to President Donald Trump.
“When you have a president who mocks our inclusivity, who demonizes our diversity . . . you can’t ask for patience,” former state Sen. Kevin de Leon said in a recent interview with the Washington Post, noting that Feinstein once said she thought Trump “can be a good president” if he opens himself to listen and change.
But Feinstein, 84, has been at the center of some of the party’s most memorable face-to-face confrontations with the president, at time seeming to convince him of the validity of Democrats’ arguments.
There was the January meeting in the Cabinet Room, where Feinstein basically got the president to sign onto Democrats’ preferred method of dealing with the 1.8 million “Dreamers,” who crossed into the United States illegally as children with their parents.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had to steer him back to the Republican Party line of working on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and border security simultaneously.
Then there was the extraordinary March huddle on gun safety, after the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, when Feinstein, sitting next to the president, appeared eager and animated after the president suggested he might be open to an assault weapons ban.
Trump didn’t follow through on either of those signals, something de Leon’s camp says is an indication that Feinstein isn’t going about changing Washington D.C. correctly.
“[Trump] said he wanted to do something, but at the end of the day he didn’t. We’ve seen this movie so many times and it never ends well,” de Leon spokesman Jonathan Underland told ABC News.
But other close watchers of the race say those interactions reinforced Feinstein’s reputation with California voters as a lawmaker who will represent their desires and, with senior perches on the Senate Judiciary, Intelligence and Appropriations Committees, someone with serious pull in Washington.
Add to that the fact that she has the level of high name recognition that comes with 26 years in the office and her campaign’s war chest and she’s a tough candidate to beat.
“The idea that she’s not effective, influential and perfectly prepared to do this job is belied by everything we’ve seen in the last few months,” Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist and a political science professor at the University of Southern California, told ABC News.
Feinstein’s longtime chief strategist Bill Carrick said the comment about Trump being a good president was overblown, which was in the context of the debate about pursuing impeachment against him.
“Despite [de Leon’s] hyperventilating about it, I don’t think anybody really thought, ‘well yeah we’d like him to be a good president,’” Carrick told ABC. “It was a little bit of a tempest in a teapot.”
In terms of Feinstein’s prospects of re-election, Tuesday’s primary is looking more “teapot” than “tempest” too.
Because of California’s unusual top-two system, sometimes known as a jungle primary, candidates from both parties vie for the two best results in the primary and then go on to face one another in the general election.
Shrum said that Feinstein would be even further ahead if the California race were a traditional Democratic primary.
The senior California senator is also a fundraising juggernaut, having pulled in $14.6 million to De Leon’s $1.1 million.
“If de Leon had money and could have gone out and made a case on a big message on other grounds [than Trump], I think maybe it could have been a real race. At this point, it is not a real race,” Shrum said.
But de Leon’s camp focuses on the fact that Feinstein hasn’t even been breaking 50 percent in polls despite her near-universal name recognition in her home state, and that a second-place primary finish could put him on more even footing with Feinstein.
“People know who she is, no question, and there’s still a significant number of people who don’t know who they’re voting for when they go to the ballot box,” a de Leon aide said.
And Underland also said the comment about Trump possibly being a good president did resonate with Californians, noting that they are particularly vulnerable to the Trump administration's policies on taxes, like lowering state and local deductions; immigration, like challenging sanctuary cities; and the environment.
"It was a slap in the face to the communities who have been the most significantly impacted by this administration," he said.
De Leon supporters also point to a statement he co-wrote the day after President Trump’s election, which they argue demonstrates that he’s better attuned than Feinstein to what Californians want, taking a harder tone towards Trump the day after he won rather than seeking opportunities to work with him.
In the statement, written by de Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, they say they would immediately get to work trying to “defend our accomplishments” in the state, evaluating how the new Trump presidency would impact federal funding of state programs, investments reliant on foreign trade and federal enforcement of California’s state laws.
“Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land,” they said in the statement.
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