Going into the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Senate Judiciary Committee ranking minority member Dianne Feinstein had some things to think about related to her re-election bid this year. Her opponent (fellow-Democrat Kevin de León, who won a general election slot under California’s Top Two primary system by finishing a distant second to the incumbent on June 5) has criticized her explicitly for insufficient partisanship in the Senate, and implicitly for sticking around too long (she is 85 years old and has held her seat for 27 years). To combat this narrative, she needed to look like an alert and articulate leader of committee Democrats in the hearings, not a wobbly bridge to Republicans.
During the regular Kavanaugh hearings from September 4-7, Feinstein probably cleared both hurdles. She wasn’t as aggressive in questioning Kavanaugh as her California colleague Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker, or Mazie Hirono. But she wasn’t reticent in challenging Kavanaugh, either. And while Feinstein occasionally showed her age, she looked pretty sharp in the geriatrics ward occupied by senior Judiciary members like Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Pat Leahy.
Still, a PPIC survey of California taken just after the hearings (from September 9-18) showed her lead against de León shrinking to eleven points (40/29); she led him 44/12 in the primary (with 30 — that’s right, 30 — other candidates dividing up the rest of the vote). So it was at best a mixed blessing for her that she became a far more central figure in the subsequent hearing involving Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, whose letter alleging a sexual assault by the judge had been withheld by Feinstein out of concern for Ford’s privacy (it was ultimately leaked by an as-yet-unknown source after rumors had spread of its existence). She again handled herself well in questioning Ford, but then was subjected to an extended pummeling by Kavanaugh himself and most of her Republican colleagues for “sitting on” the Ford letter until so late in the confirmation process — with broad hints that she was the leaker.
Feinstein was mostly a bystander in the brouhaha that produced a temporary delay in the committee’s confirmation vote, with Chris Coons being Jeff Flake’s chief Democratic interlocutor in convincing him to demand an FBI inquiry into Ford’s and others’ allegations. And then, of course, the FBI “investigation” turned out to be cursory, and the Senate duly confirmed Kavanaugh by a near-party-line vote.
Most Democrats in California and elsewhere defended Feinstein from the attacks over her handling of Ford. But not Kevin de León, who began criticizing his opponent from practically the moment the story about Ford started trickling out. CalMatters reported his arguments:
De León — who last week called Feinstein’s approach a ‘failure of leadership’ — said that if he were in Feinstein’s situation, he would have shared a redacted version of the letter with fellow Judiciary Committee members.
’I believe that Christine Ford’s confidentiality could have been kept and at the same time this issue could have been dealt with,’ he said. ‘But it was neither. And it wasn’t until the pressure mounted, because of the press, because of the leaks, that (Feinstein) started acting.’
It’s unclear how many voters heard or agreed with de León’s critique; given the intense polarization surrounding the Ford and Kavanaugh testimony, it’s possible some Democrats will decide Feinstein was too hesitant in the whole affair. But de León also may have erred by opening himself up to counter-criticism concerning his own handling of sexual-harassment allegations in the state senate, for which he is responsible as Majority Leader. On the other hand, the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing and the fallout from it may have given help to his candidacy from an unexpected direction: Republican voters.
Powerline’s Steven Hayward made the case for what he called a “delicious possibility”:
California Republicans have it in their power to punish Feinstein for her role in the Kavanaugh nomination process by voting en masse for de León. Since the Democrats are heading fast to the far left, why not help them out on this self-destructive course …
There has been speculation that Feinstein launched the late stunt on Kavanaugh because she was worried about losing to de León. It would be the height of irony if it was Republicans delivered a humiliating blow and ignominious end to her long career as a result of that bad faith act.
Would Republican voters actually want to “punish” Feinstein so badly that they’d vote for the progressive de León? It might seem counterintuitive, but then again, attendees at Donald Trump’s latest rally in Iowa seemed to be in a genuine hate-rage towards Feinstein, as The Hill reported:
Attendees at President Trump’s campaign rally in Iowa on Tuesday night chanted ‘lock her up’ after the president questioned whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) leaked allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The PPIC poll that showed Feinstein’s lead over de León shrinking showed self-identified Republicans preferring the latter to the former, despite her centrist reputation. But here’s the more important thing: 52 percent of Republicans told PPIC they did not plan to vote for either Democrat. If they stampeded to de León out of anger at Feinstein, the race could get very interesting between now and November 6. So the incumbent senator from California is not out of the woods just yet.