The California U.S. Senate race is showing the weird effects of two unrelated but intersecting phenomena: the state’s top-two primary system, which has denied Republicans a general election candidate in this contest, and the polarizing rage over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which has made those same Republicans intensely dislike Ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Last week I noted that some Republican opinion-leaders were talking up the idea of “punishing” Feinstein by voting for her very self-consciously progressive opponent, Democratic state senate leader Kevin de León.
Now there are some signs that this is actually happening, though probably not at a level that seriously threatens Feinstein’s reelection over her poorly funded rival. A new USC/L.A. Times survey shows Feinstein leading de León among likely voters by an underwhelming 35/22 margin, with 33 percent undecided and another 9 percent saying they will vote but will skip this particular contest. If you add in leaners, her lead stays at the same 13 points (44/31), though her support is softer than de León’s. Feinstein leads among registered Democrats by a 53/23 margin, while de Leon leads among registered Republicans 21/14 (the two are running even among independents). Keep in mind that de León was officially endorsed by the increasingly left-leaning California Democratic Party in July, and his campaign has mostly been about Feinstein’s insufficient partisan zeal and lapses in progressivism. This poll shows self-identified liberal Democrats supporting Feinstein 56/30 while self-identified conservative Republicans back de León 41/22.
The sleeping giant in this race is the huge undecided and “I’ll skip it” vote. According to information supplied to me by the pollster, 32 percent of undecideds are registered Republicans, while 30 percent are registered Democrats and 29 percent are independents. If all these categories break along the lines decided voters have chosen, Feinstein is still in pretty good shape; her lead among Democrats is larger than de León’s among Republicans. But then there is the nearly-all-Republican group of voters (9 percent of the total, and 27 percent of Republicans) who aren’t inclined to vote for either Democrat. If the “punish Feinstein” mood continues or even intensifies (keeping in mind that early voting by mail — which will probably account for well over half the final vote — has already begun), it could get dicey for the incumbent.
The situation also creates a rather peculiar strategic dilemma for de León: anything he does to deepen the ideological gap between himself and Feinstein could hurt him with his unlikely electoral base. I mean, California Republicans may perceive Feinstein as a crazy liberal, but if they really get a load of de León’s platform, he may come across as a godless radical-socialist liberal. And so, as the veteran political analyst Bob Shrum observes, de León’s big weakness in this race, his campaign’s tiny war chest, could be a blessing in disguise:
The $4 million Feinstein has in the bank for the final weeks of the campaign dwarfs the approximately $300,000 De León has left.
“In some ways the worst thing that could happen to him is to have the money to go on television,” Shrum said. “If he did have the resources, he would jeopardize that Republican support.”
That shouldn’t be a problem. And in the end, enough California Republicans may well skip this race that their relative support for de León won’t matter. But Team Feinstein should probably try not to say or do anything that enrages them even more.