Feinstein Fends Off Strong Democratic Challenger Who Warns It's No Time 'To Play Polite'
The unexpected battle seemed like it might foreshadow a growing push among California's Democrats for change. But in the end, Dianne Feinstein held on to the Senate seat she first won in 1992, ahead by about 6 points as Election Day drew to a close.
By then, she'd faced an unexpectedly robust challenge for her fifth full term, a challenge that came from a member of her own party -- made possible by California's top-two primary system.
Feinstein seemed well aware of her of legacy as she spoke to supporters shortly before State Sen. Kevin de León called her to concede. At 85, Feinstein is the oldest serving U.S. senator.
She joked that after so many terms she was surprised to still see a crowd.
"As I walked into this jammed room, somewhat overheated, I thought: You know, how lucky I am to have a constituency like this," she said. "How lucky I am to have a family, husband, daughter, step-daughters that support me.'"
That support served her well as de León, who is 51, cast himself as a more progressive choice for state voters who haven't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Pete Wilson won re-election in 1988.
De León launched his U.S. Senate bid more than a year ago at an event held at Los Angeles Trade Technical College in downtown L.A.
Feinstein had come under scrutiny from some California Democrats for, at times, striking a more moderate tone toward President Trump. And de León sought to draw a sharp distinction between Feinstein's old guard-style and his own.
His decision to jump into a race where the incumbent was widely seen to have a lock came less than two months after Feinstein had called for patience with Trump's presidency at a much-written about appearance in San Francisco.
Her words became campaign ammunition for de León. Throughout what at first seemed like a quixotic run to beat Feinstein, de León cast himself as an agent of change who would break through the political gridlock in Washington.
It's an argument that he didn't have much opportunity to make face to face. The two rivals met just once in a candidate forum ahead of the general election. That took place in San Francisco in mid-October.
On Tuesday night, even as he took the stage to cheering supporters, De León continued to emphasize the divide between them. He pointed out that he, not Feinstein, won the endorsement of the state party.
This was after he'd congratulated Feinstein on her victory.
"We've shown that you just can't elect Democrats that talk like Democrats. We have to fight for Democrats who share our values, who aren't afraid to stand up, to speak out, and fight every day and every which way for the most vulnerable of California," he said.
De León urged his supporters to see themselves as the future of the party, telling them that they have bent the center of political gravity. Some in the crowd gathered near the stage shouted out, "Kevin for mayor!" and "Kevin for governor!" as he spoke.
"This is a new chapter, this is just the beginning of a new California," De León said. "We are in the fight for the soul of our nation ... we will not bide our time and play polite."
During his campaign, he repeatedly highlighted what he sees as California's recent legislative successes on issues like health care, protecting immigrants and climate change.
His message resonated with backers.
Michael Rincon of Thousand Oaks said he hopes de León tries again for higher office.
"I see a shift in Democratic values and ideologies, especially as more of the baby boomers start to retire and pass along," Rincon said. "I feel that the younger generation of Democrats, or younger generation of Americans in general, the values are different from our parents, from our grandparents."
Feinstein, who was initially largely absent from the campaign trail, became more active in recent weeks, appearing at events and doing interviews throughout the state.
She sought to leverage her experience and track record on issues like women's rights and gun control.
Feinstein was vocal about her support for raising the required age to purchase firearms and preventing individuals on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. And she reminded voters she was the author of the assault weapons ban, which banned military-style firearms from 1994 to 2004.
And, of course, criticism of her being too soft on Trump was mitigated as she took a leading role in the nomination hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Her high-profile time in the spotlight during those hearings earned her support from some liberals, and criticism from others. Some felt she abandoned the trust of Christine Blasey Ford when information regarding the letter Ford submitted to her office was reported on by The Intercept.
Feinstein later referred Ford's letter to the FBI.
On election night, Feinstein told those gathered that she took her responsibilities seriously and her esperience to date allowed her to continue to grow as a leader.
She underscored her trailblazing as a woman on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, saying where she was once alone there were now four other Democratic women serving with her.
"I hope you find our service very forceful and special for you, those of you who are women, those of you who are men," she said. "This is such a great country and it has been factionalized and trivialized with rhetoric. We must stop that. We must come together as the great power that we are, for the good of the nation and, I think, of mankind."
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