SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein failed to win the official endorsement of the California Democratic Party as she seeks her fifth term, another sign that the party is divided over how best to battle Republicans in Washington.
Democratic activists were more eager to back her primary challenger, state Senate leader Kevin de Leon, who is touting himself as a fresh face with stronger progressive credentials, particularly on immigration.
However, he too failed to earn the 60 percent support needed to win the endorsement Saturday at Democrats’ annual convention. That means neither candidate will get the party’s seal of approval or extra campaign cash leading into the June primary.
With Democrats still licking their wounds from the 2016 election, some of the party’s biggest stars, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, urged unity ahead of the midterm elections. They reminded more than 3,000 activists gathered this weekend that President Donald Trump is their common enemy.
Though party activists rebuked Feinstein, she has millions of dollars to run a successful campaign and polling has shown she enjoys wide support among Democratic voters and independents, a critical piece of the electorate in a race without any well-known Republicans.
The top-two primary system in heavily Democratic California allows the two highest vote-getters to advance to the general election regardless of party identification. It’s the first time Feinstein has failed to win the party’s backing since 1994, when she won her first full-term to the U.S. Senate, though she’s lacked a credible Democratic challenger in most previous races.
Delegates who withheld their support said they think Feinstein, 84, has been in Washington too long and hasn’t stood strong enough for immigrants. When she spoke longer than her allotted time, some in the crowd chanted “Time’s up!” — referring to her lengthy tenure in Congress. Thirty-seven percent of Democrats backed Feinstein, while 54 percent supported de Leon. He called it “an astounding rejection of politics as usual” and a boost to his campaign’s momentum.
De Leon didn’t appear to lose support despite a sexual misconduct scandal at the California Capitol during his leadership. His former roommate, Tony Mendoza, resigned Thursday after an investigation concluded he likely sexually harassed six women. De Leon had called for him to be expelled. Mendoza is running for re-election but failed to win the party’s backing this weekend.
Feinstein supporters, meanwhile, said her long track record as a fighter for Democrats and women makes her the party’s best choice. “She has so much seniority, it’s hard to give that up,” said Cathy Jorgensen, a delegate from the farm-rich Central Valley.
Her political strategist, Bill Carrick, said the campaign was “in good shape.” But the party was fractured. It failed to unite behind a single candidate in the majority of statewide races, including for governor, where four Democrats are vying to replace outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor crafting himself as a warrior for progressive ideals, took 39 percent of the vote, with state Treasurer John Chiang and former state schools chief Delaine Easton not far behind. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is courting more moderate and even conservative voters, won just 9 percent.
Party leaders also implored activists to rally behind one candidate in U.S. House races with as many as seven Democratic hopefuls, warning a failure to unite could boost Republicans. Perhaps best underscoring party tensions is the race between Feinstein and de Leon.
The longtime senator focused on her specific legislative record, including on gun control and sexual assault, saying she’s a long fighter for Democratic values with the clout to get things done. Feinstein touted her successful measure banning assault weapons in 1994, which has since expired, and pledged she would not rest until a similar bill passes again. As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she promised she would never back funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But de Leon, who authored “sanctuary state” legislation to limit California authorities from cooperating with federal immigration officials, has argued that Feinstein historically failed to stand up for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Feinstein voted against two federal spending measures that left out deportation protections for “dreamers,” but some activists felt it was a forced vote. “She shows up now that she’s being challenged,” said Ana Gonzalez of San Bernardino County.