Senate race: De León in steep uphill fight

Kevin de León at the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this year. (Photo: Featureflash Photography)

In October of 2015, Bernie Sanders famously said he was “sick and tired of hearing about (Hillary Clinton’s) damn emails.”  In October of 2017, the Democratic political world is already sick and tired of re-litigating the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

But as state Senate Leader Kevin de León announced his challenge to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Clinton’s 53%-to-46% win over Sanders in the California primary has become the logical starting point for our analysis of Democratic voting as we look at the 2018 Senate race.

Ultimately, De León’s hopes are pinned mostly on a desire for change, be it generational or ideological — or both.

Our recent Sextant Strategies & Research/Capitol Weekly poll of 1,554 likely voters shows just how significant a challenge De León faces in 2018. Nearly half the electorate has never heard of him, and of those who have, his favorability-versus-unfavorability ratings are about even.  A hypothetical, Feinstein-De León matchup for both the primary and general elections shows Feinstein with better than a 2-to-1 advantage.

Feinstein, like Clinton, is a centrist with a strong base in the party establishment. De León is somewhat a reflection of Sanders, but without the name recognition.  He’s less of an outsider, with a strong portfolio of progressive legislative accomplishments.

Ultimately, De León’s hopes are pinned mostly on a desire for change, be it generational or ideological — or both.

The challenge for the De León campaign is improving on Sanders’ performance, even while the electorate will likely have fewer voters from Sanders’ base – those under 40 and independents.  Historically, those groups, along with another key De León constituency, Latinos, don’t turn out as strongly in non-presidential elections.  He will need to make the turnout case to white liberals.

De León will garner some support for championing single-payer health care.

Assuming a Republican candidate of some stature runs (in our poll, we used gubernatorial candidate John Cox as a stand in, but we don’t infer that he will be a candidate for the Senate), Feinstein begins the race as a strong favorite to finish ahead of De León to qualify for the general election with the Republican.

If the Republicans bungle this Senate primary as they did two years ago when Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez finished top two in the primary, Feinstein begins with a healthy lead in a Democrat-vs.-Democrat general election as well.

Both races tighten by about 10 percentage points after respondents heard messages critical of Feinstein (with no corresponding critical messages about De León), encompassing the two major issues raised about her – the length of her political career and her being too accommodating to President Trump.

We did not include positive information about either candidate so De León remained a blank slate to the voters who did not know him.

On issues, each candidate has some advantages.

Two-thirds of California Democrats believe that their Congressional leaders “should work with President Trump on any issue where they can find common ground (because) any progress in Congress would be good for the country.” Only a quarter believe they “should NOT work with President Trump at all (because) Democrats must not give Trump any political victories that will help him get re-elected.”  This sentiment provides Feinstein political cover for criticism that she hasn’t “resisted” Trump sufficiently.

De León will garner some support for championing single-payer health care.  Among Democrats likely to vote in the primary, four-in-five support single payer, and overall about half the electorate favors creating a single-payer system in California.

President Trump will continue to serve as the ultimate wild card.

De León also has potentially more room to grow among those who are undecided in this race.  With 93% of voters knowing enough about Feinstein to rate her, one could see her numbers as more set.  Conversely, with 48% of the electorate not knowing who De Leon is, he could benefit more from a growth in that name recognition and telling of his story.

In these results, we find that the supposed split among Democrats is not really as strong as it is portrayed in the media. These two positions – supporting single payer and dealing with Trump – are equally popular within the Democratic base even though pundits would say they reflect two different mindsets within the party.

Ultimately, this primary for the U.S. Senate is not a repeat of Hillary vs. Bernie.  Democrats will find much to like about both candidates.  Whether Feinstein vs. De León is decided in June or November, voters will be choosing between two compelling candidates.

Feinstein, like all incumbents, has several structural advantages, but De León has the potential to create a bridge between progressive outsiders and more traditional Democrats.  And President Trump will continue to serve as the ultimate wild card.

If the Russia investigation becomes a greater focus in the lead up to the election, or if relations with North Korea continue to deteriorate, Feinstein’s foreign relations experience will buttress her case for re-election.  If Trump continues his divisive comments and policies on race and toward immigrants, De León’s issues come to the fore.

In any event, we will be able to watch a much more interesting and competitive U.S. Senate race than we were given in 2016.  And, depending on how the race is waged, we could see De Leon rising to be a significant statewide figure no matter the outcome in June or November.

Ed’s Note:  Political pollster Jonathan Brown is the president of Sextant Strategies. 






Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: