The primaries may be over. But there is still one big showdown between two Democrats left at the ballot box.
In California, which has a nonpartisan, top-two primary system, former state Senate Leader Kevin de León (D) is challenging the more moderate U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) in November.
De León, who stepped down from his leadership post in March, released a biographical video advertisement on Tuesday made by the same political production team, WIN, that was responsible for Wisconsin Democrat Randy Bryce’s viral announcement ad last year.
The nearly three-minute spot, “Our Time,” shares the cinematic features of other ads released by progressive insurgents this election cycle. But it’s likely to make the biggest waves for the tough shots it takes at Feinstein.
The ad, which the campaign is paying to promote on the internet, begins with de León narrating his personal story. As a boy, he would accompany his mother, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, on house-cleaning jobs in the San Diego area. We see actors portraying a young de León and his mother.
Halfway through the ad, de León discusses his revulsion at President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, including the separation of undocumented parents from their children at the border.
“How would my life change if they had taken her away from me? Who would I be today?” he says, as we see Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents take away de León’s “mother.” “And where did all this horror begin?”
It began, the video implies, with politicians like Feinstein, who denounced undocumented immigrants in harsh terms decades before Trump ran for president using much cruder rhetoric.
Rather than have de León make this point himself, the ad simply shows two clips of Feinstein in 1994 and 1993, making hard-line denunciations of “illegal immigrants.”
“The illegal immigrants who come here and commit felonies ― that’s not what this nation is,” the video shows Feinstein saying in 1994.
“I say return them to their own country, wherever that country may be,” the video next shows her saying in 1993.
The ad then cuts to footage of Trump’s June 2015 campaign announcement, where he calls undocumented immigrants “rapists.”
“We deserve better leadership,” de León concludes. ”There’s too much at risk.”
Feinstein is far from the most conservative member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, but her record is indeed more centrist than California’s progressive reputation might suggest. On immigration, Feinstein tried to outflank Republican Michael Huffington, a congressman who challenged her in the Senate in 1994. Feinstein ran an ad against Huffington blasting him for failing to fund “new border guards,” even as Feinstein “led the fight against illegal immigration.” Huffington had voted against a massive appropriations bill passed by the then-Democratic House, which financed the hiring of 700 new guards, but voted for other bills beefing up border security. (Huffington was married to Arianna Huffington, the founder and former editor-in-chief of HuffPost.)
Of course, even then, Feinstein was navigating tricky terrain. At the time, she was also publicly opposing Proposition 187, an ultimately successful ballot initiative that barred undocumented immigrants from receiving state benefits. Huffington supported the ballot initiative.
And as mayor of San Francisco in 1985, Feinstein had made the city a sanctuary city for asylum seekers from Guatemala and El Salvador.
Feinstein has since become an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. She voted for the 2013 bipartisan immigration reform bill that did just that, and against a 2015 bill that would have leveraged federal funds to penalize “sanctuary cities” that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
But in an interview with HuffPost, de León noted that as recently as September 2017, Feinstein agreed with an interviewer’s assessment that former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was on ”shaky legal ground.” A spokesperson for her office subsequently clarified that she meant that the executive branch policy was under legal attack, and thus that legislation codifying it was urgent.
“The ad is an accurate contrast ― a juxtaposition between our actions and what we do in a position of power to improve the human condition for millions of hard-working folks who deserve to become full-fledged Americans.”
De León also slammed Feinstein’s 2006 vote for the Secure Fence Act, which allotted funding for at “least 2 layers of reinforced fencing” and “the installation of additional physical barriers” at the U.S.-Mexico border. Feinstein was one of 26 Democrats to vote for the act. Sixteen Democrats, one Democratic-affiliated independent and one Republican voted against it.
“The ad is an accurate contrast ― a juxtaposition between our actions and what we do in a position of power to improve the human condition for millions of hard-working folks who deserve to become full-fledged Americans,” de León said.
He wants to remind Californians of Feinstein’s record of centrist positions not only on immigration, but also on taxes and foreign policy, which he believes show she is out of touch with California voters. Feinstein voted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for former President George W. Bush’s income and estate tax cuts, and until recently, she supported the death penalty, de León noted. (By 2007, Feinstein expressed regret for her vote to authorize the Iraq War.)
Referring to her 2006 vote for the Secure Fence Act, de León said that Feinstein “voted for a wall before Donald Trump ever started speaking about the wall.”
“That’s not a critique, those are her votes,” de León said. “It’s an opportunity to introduce myself to the voters of California and allow them to make the choice.”
The attack resembles the Trump administration’s defense of its proposal to build a border wall, a claim Politifact rated “half true.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voted for the measure, which created fencing, rather than a wall, at the border.
De León is also critical of Feinstein’s leadership as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He focused on her apology to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh for protesters’ disruptions of his confirmation hearing.
“It was another demonstration of disconnection from the fears that many families have if this confirmation is successful,” de León said.
De León said he is concerned about Kavanaugh’s opposition to abortion rights and other civil liberties, and his unwillingness to state whether he would allow Trump to pardon himself for any alleged crimes he has committed.
Given what de León believes is the “constitutional threat” to the country posed by Kavanaugh’s confirmation and past Republican obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination, he said he would consider joining acts of civil disobedience against Kavanaugh.
He even favors expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court, so that Democrats would not need to wait for a justice’s retirement or death to influence the court’s makeup.
“Would I be supportive of expanding the U.S. Supreme Court? Under the current conditions, the answer is, ‘Absolutely, yes,’” he said.
Reached for comment, Feinstein’s campaign defended the senator and accused de León of “desperately trying to change the subject.”
“Senator Feinstein has been a leader in protecting California’s immigrant community,” said Feinstein campaign spokesman Bill Carrick.
Feinstein’s campaign referred HuffPost to several pieces of legislation Feinstein has championed that would protect undocumented immigrants, including a bill providing a path to citizenship for agricultural workers. The campaign also emphasized her authorship of the Keep Families Together Act explicitly prohibiting Trump’s family separation policy. In a Spanish-language ad, Feinstein touts these stances as well as her on-air demand that Trump sign a “clean” DACA bill, making the policy permanent without preconditions.
“State Sen. de León is desperately trying to change the subject after his appalling attacks against Senator Feinstein for honoring Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford’s request for confidentiality until she decided to share her story,” Carrick said.
De León has criticized Feinstein for not releasing Ford’s accusation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh sooner. But Feinstein said she was honoring Ford’s request for privacy. Ford’s lawyer Debra Katz has since confirmed that Ford did not want to come forward until it became clear that the media had learned of the story and was poised to report on it.
De León, 51, has represented parts of Los Angeles in the state legislature since 2006, first in the Assembly, and since 2010 in the state Senate. He became president pro tempore of the state Senate ― the highest-ranking legislator in the chamber, and the first Latino in California’s history to hold that position ― in 2014, before stepping down as leader in March. Prior to his career as a lawmaker, de León worked as an immigrant rights advocate and an organizer for a teachers union.
With neither the youth and viral stardom of progressive newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, nor the backing of the Golden State’s most powerful Democrats, de León has struggled to break through in the polls. Public surveys, the most recent of which was conducted in mid-July, consistently show him trailing Feinstein by about 20 percentage points. However, a poll conducted earlier this month by the generally pro-GOP Probolsky Research firm found de León trailing by just 8 points.
Feinstein, 85, has served in the U.S. Senate since 1992, when she won a special election to fill a seat vacated by then-Republican Sen. Pete Wilson.
Able to draw on both a massive personal fortune and the largesse of corporations and wealthy donors, the senior California senator has far outspent de León. Thanks in part to $9.75 million that Feinstein has lent her campaign, she has raised nearly $15 million and still has $3.8 million on hand. Her largest corporate donor is the San Francisco-area biotech firm Genentech, which has contributed $20,000 to her campaign through a political action committee.
De León, by contrast, has raised $1.3 million and has just under $426,000 left in the bank. His top contributors are labor unions.
Nearly every prominent Democrat in the state has rallied behind Feinstein, including Sen. Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is poised to cruise to victory in his own race for governor. Some progressive activists had hoped Newsom would face a Democrat in the general election, forcing both him and, likely, Feinstein to work harder for progressive support.
Hoping for an easier general election, Newsom buttressed Republican businessman John Cox in the primary.
Now, with Cox at the top of the ballot, state Republicans are more likely to show up to the polls. Some of those same Republicans may also vote for Feinstein in order to avoid electing the more left-leaning de León.
For his part, de León worked hard to secure the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, where activists have a significant voice. He also has the backing of progressive Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna (Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (Calif.), Lou Correa (Calif.), Filemon Vela (Texas) and Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), as well as the California-based liberal billionaire Tom Steyer. Steyer contributed $2,700 to de León’s primary bid, but has yet to invest major sums on de León’s behalf through his outside political groups.
Progressive primary challengers have had far more success against incumbents in down-ballot races this election cycle. Insurgents have unseated just two incumbent Democratic members of Congress: Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York, and Rep. Michael Capuano in Massachusetts.
The results of the state-level New York Democratic primary last Thursday were typical. The establishment candidates at the top of the ticket, led by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, romped to victory, while progressives enjoyed unexpected success in competitive state Senate races.
However, de León benefits from the kind of deep governing experience that someone like Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s progressive challenger, lacked.
In fact, he has a record of progressive accomplishments in the legislature that would be the envy of many congressional veterans. He was the author of California’s sanctuary state bill, which became law in October. More recently, de León shepherded the passage of a climate change bill that requires California to run on 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“I’m no stranger to crafting complex, arcane policies like 100 percent clean energy. That’s not an easy feat in the fifth largest economy in the world,” de León said.
“I’m not being aspirational,” he added. “I want to get shit done.”
This story has been updated with comments from Feinstein’s campaign.