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Dianne Feinstein Drafts House Candidates in Effort to Stave Off Party Endorsement Loss in California

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With little chance of winning the California Democratic Party endorsement at an upcoming meeting, Dianne Feinstein is campaigning hard to prevent the party from endorsing her opponent, state Sen. Kevin de León, in the U.S. Senate race.

And she’s employing a series of House candidates to help make her case.

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For weeks, Feinstein and her team have been calling, emailing, and texting the roughly 360 delegates of the party’s executive board, which is meeting this weekend in Oakland to decide the endorsement. It’s the same style of campaign run by candidates seeking a state party endorsement, only Feinstein is playing for the block. De León, say close observers of the race, is relatively close to securing the 60 percent endorsement threshold, one of the few avenues available for him to change the dynamic of the race, after finishing 32 points behind Feinstein in the open primary in June.

On Saturday, delegates received a letter from six candidates in flippable districts in the state, making the argument that they should vote for no endorsement in the name of party unity. “A divisive party endorsement … would hurt all down ballot candidates and our ability to turn out Democrats we desperately need to vote in November,” the letter reads. Feinstein’s campaign paid for the mailing.

The signers included Josh Harder, TJ Cox, and Andrew Janz, running in the Central Valley; Katie Hill, in northern Los Angeles County; and Katie Porter and Mike Levin, in Orange County.

Left unsaid in the letter is any reason why the party uniting around one candidate — de León — would somehow be divisive. In fact, Harder, Cox, and Janz, in the Latino-heavy Central Valley, would need massive Latino turnout to win, and a de León endorsement could provide a boost. It’s even more unclear why Feinstein, a senator for 26 years in California, would need to work so hard to stop the most dedicated and plugged-in Democrats from endorsing her opponent.

The letter also puts the signers in an awkward position, as some ran as insurgents in the primary. For candidates such as Porter or Levin, they risk alienating progressive supporters before even getting to office.

Feinstein lost the endorsement race for the primary at the state party convention in February, earning only 37 percent of the vote to de León’s 54 percent. She then romped in the top-two primary, getting 44 percent of the vote and what campaign officials have touted as 70 percent of the vote from all Democrats on the ballot. The dynamic seems clear: The nearer you get to the party’s activist base, the less enthusiasm Feinstein engenders.

After the primary, in cases in which two Democrats advance to the general election, the executive board gets another opportunity to endorse. Initially, Feinstein registered and paid the $1,000 fee to appear on the ballot for the endorsement. But in recent weeks, she has reversed course, instead invoking the need for party unity and calling for no endorsement.

Feinstein spokesperson Jeff Millman has insisted that Feinstein never wanted the endorsement, telling The Intercept that “we registered with the party so she could address the general session via video.” He added, “At this point, neither candidate has enough votes to secure the endorsement, and many executive board members are going to vote no endorsement in the interest of party unity.”

De León supporters paint a different picture. They say that Feinstein worked to earn the endorsement, only switching to the “party unity” strategy after it became clear that she couldn’t secure the votes. “If you’re not seeking the endorsement, you don’t put in an application and you don’t pay the fee,” said Susie Shannon, a DNC member and delegate to the executive board. “You would rescind that if you were being honest.”

Not seeking the endorsement gives Feinstein an out should de León win; after all, she wasn’t even trying. It’s a classic case of expectation management. But pulling out swing district House candidates to amplify her message suggests that Feinstein’s campaign is taking the matter quite seriously. “It shows just how disconnected the sitting senator of 25 years is from her party’s core activists that she has to beg and cajole people not to take a position on the endorsement, rather than actually earn it herself,” wrote David Atkins, a writer and executive board member from Santa Barbara, on Twitter. “Pretending it’s about party unity is just insulting.”

You might think the executive board would be more tied to the party establishment than the 2,700 convention delegates who voted in the initial endorsement race. But Shannon explained that the e-board includes fewer elected officials and their proxies and a higher percentage of grassroots activists elected to the position through delegate meetings. “The notion that it’s more establishment isn’t the case,” she said.

According to the Los Angeles Times, and confirmed by The Intercept through several delegates close to the de León campaign, a whip count of e-board members’ votes in the first endorsement battle revealed 56 percent support for de León, higher than the 54 percent he earned in February. With a maximum of 360-odd votes at issue, a shift of just 10 to 15 delegates would give de León the endorsement. “We would be honored to have the support of the California Democratic Party,” said de León spokesperson Jonathan Underland.

De León is also coming off one of the most solid weeks of his campaign, with his most high-profile policies making headlines. A federal judge upheld his “sanctuary state” law against assaults from the Trump administration. The bill he co-authored to restore net neutrality in California got revived in the state legislature. And SB100, a de León effort to mandate 100 percent carbon-free energy throughout the state by 2045, passed an Assembly committee. “It’s been a fabulous week,” said RL Miller, chair of the state party’s environmental caucus and a de León supporter.

De León also joined the movement to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week, arguing that it had become “a rogue police agency that has continually departed from its mission to keep us safe.” As ranking Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feinstein would control the committee with jurisdiction over ICE if her party retakes the Senate. While Feinstein has veered left on a number of issues during the campaign, she has stopped short of calling to abolish ICE.

“We’ve seen cases of ICE resorting to extreme measures like following families to school, shutting down agricultural operations during harvest season and deporting immigrants who are longtime residents of their communities and pose no threat to public safety,” Feinstein said in a statement to The San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s clear that we need to rethink how our immigration laws are enforced in the face of repeated overreach. Immigration laws can be enforced without these tactics.”

On Monday, President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, reviving in the public mind a fierce 2006 fight over his initial nomination to the federal bench. Progressives warned at the time that confirming Kavanaugh risked putting the extreme jurist on a fast track to the high court. Feinstein was one of just a handful of Democrats to vote for cloture on Kavanaugh, enabling him to get a floor vote. On the floor, she voted no.

California state Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, poses for photos in his campaign office, Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Los Angeles. In the California Primary election, de Leon is challenging fellow Democrat, incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for her senate seat. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

California state Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, poses for photos in his campaign office, May 3, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP

Delegates pay more attention than the rank-and-file to votes in Washington, where Feinstein has crossed swords with the party periodically. That said, in speaking with party delegates, what was most striking is how little they know of someone who’s in her third decade as a party standard-bearer. “She’s been my senator for 25 years. I’ve been active for 15 years, and I never met the woman,” said Dorothy Reik, a de León supporter from Topanga, California. “Who is she? She doesn’t breathe the air we breathe, doesn’t drive the freeways we drive.”

Jon Katz, president of the Santa Monica Democratic Club, said de León visited the club three times to ask for their endorsement, even confronting Trump supporters who went to the club meetings to protest. He said Feinstein wouldn’t commit to attending the club at any point over the two-year election cycle. “When I later talked to her campaign staff and asked why she refused to come, they told me they just assumed the clubs would endorse Feinstein because she’s the incumbent,” Katz said.

Anne Mohr, an e-board member from Costa Mesa, in Orange County, said she received no contact from Feinstein or her people until the endorsement process. “Suddenly she’s everybody’s buddy,” Mohr said.

Mohr detailed several recent contacts with Feinstein campaign officials, all of them urging her to vote for no endorsement this weekend. “The spiel was that we as Democrats don’t want to look divided,” she said. “As a delegate, I feel it’s my duty to endorse someone. We’re elected to represent the voters in our district.” She said she supports de León after personal interactions with him and his work helping pass a campaign finance bill which increases disclosure of big-money interests in state campaigns. “I felt here’s a guy who is Democratic in his policies, and he’s approachable.”

Feinstein’s strategy throughout the race has been to deny de León oxygen to get out his message. She used her personal fortune to amass a 20-1 fundraising advantage. Longtime donors who might want to give to de León must weigh angering not only Feinstein, but the vast political network of consultants around her, who work with most of the major elected officials in the state. The e-board race allows for retail campaigning, but California has 19 million voters. Feinstein hasn’t said a negative word publicly about de León, but appears to want to prevent word getting out about his existence.

De León conserved scarce resources for the primary, to which his campaign has attributed his low vote total. The party endorsement could change the narrative and signal that the race is viable. He’ll also need funds to compete statewide — perhaps from labor unions who have already endorsed him — or a game changer in the debates in the fall, which Feinstein has committed to.

Both Feinstein and de León plan to attend the executive board meetings. On Monday, Feinstein sent an email to delegates inviting them to breakfast the day of the endorsement vote. De León also has a weekend event — he’s calling it the “Abolish ICE Cream Social.”

Update: July 10, 2018

This story was updated to include Feinstein’s comment to the San Francisco Chronicle on ICE overreach. 

Top photo: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for the Senate Democrats’ policy lunch in the Capitol on July 10, 2018.

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