In April, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein angered constituents in her hometown of San Francisco when she said firmly that she doesn’t support a universal “Medicare-for-all” health care system championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Some in the large and boisterous crowd, gathered for Feinstein’s first town hall since President Donald Trump took office, jeered and booed. Handmade signs reading “Resist” rose into the air.
Last week, Feinstein was booed again on her home turf, this time for saying that Trump “can be a good president” if he can “learn and change.”
To left-leaning activists, Feinstein’s comments were a glaring signal that she is out of step with her own party. They say she suffers in comparison with newly elected Sen. Kamala Harris, who plans to co-sponsor the Sanders “Medicare-for-all” legislation.
“It’s time for Dianne Feinstein to go,” said Ben Becker, co-founder of San Francisco Berniecrats. “She’s not looking out for people of color and poor people, those who don’t have equal footing in Donald Trump’s America. Her argument for civility and bipartisanship will lead us down a very, very dark path with this current administration.”
In public appearances this year, Feinstein has called on Democrats to work with Republicans on health care and touted her record in Washington, saying at the April town hall that “I don’t get there by making statements I can’t deliver.” At the event in San Francisco last week, she noted it’s still early in Trump’s presidency and said, “I think we have to have some patience.”
Some see her remarks as political missteps. Others say they are the latest evidence that Feinstein’s brand of politics is increasingly at odds with California’s changing Democratic Party. Experts say tectonic shifts have become clear over the past two years, as demonstrated by Bernie Sanders’ popularity and support for socially liberal issues like gay marriage and legal weed and recent increases in registered Democrats and independents. who identify themselves as liberal.
“That was a comment (about Trump) that a Democrat might make in Wyoming or Oklahoma, but not here. That guy is toxic here,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who has run several statewide campaigns.
“This was just a real moment of truth for a lot of Democrats about whether or not she gets it. The Democratic electorate has gotten more liberal, it’s gotten younger and it’s gotten far more diverse,” South added. “The ground has shifted underneath everyone’s feet, almost like a sudden earthquake, and whether she understands that or not I don’t know. It wasn’t evident from her comments the other night that she does.”
Democrats make up 44.8 percent of the state’s registered voters, up from 43.9 percent in 2013, while the Republican voter base has shrunk over the same period, with 25.9 percent registered Republicans today. Independent voters are closing in on Republicans at 24.5 percent. More than half – 61 percent – of registered Democrats say they’re liberal.
“A lot of Democrats supported Bernie Sanders, and that’s certainly not something anybody expected in California. It showed the extent to which Democrats were searching for a new way, some different answers,” said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California. “In many ways, that has become more pronounced since the election of Donald Trump.”
Anxiety over the direction of the country – 67 percent of Californians disapprove of Trump’s job in office, according to PPIC polling – is fueling dissatisfaction with Feinstein’s approach as she faces re-election for a sixth term in 2018.
At 84, she is the nation’s oldest U.S. senator. While she has declined to reveal her plans publicly, Feinstein appears to be in campaign mode. She has begun raising money and has taken in $1.35 million during the first half of 2017, with a total of $3.6 million in her campaign account.
Supporters say her experience is what’s needed in turbulent times. She is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is a member of the Senate Intelligence and Appropriations committees – responsible for investigating ties between Trump and Russia and overseeing federal spending.
“Why wouldn’t she run?” asked Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s longtime political consultant. “She’s obviously a leader in the Democratic Party, both in California and nationally, and she has a long record of being there on progressive causes, whether it’s women’s issues or immigration or fighting the repeal of Obamacare.”
Others say her centrist approach could put her in political danger.
“Dianne Feinstein is on a diet that does not include much Democratic red meat – single-payer health care, immigration, impeachment,” said Bill Whalen, a Republican and research fellow with the Hoover Institution. “She’s one of the few adults left in the room ... but it’s something you have to take seriously when you’re from one of the most liberal states in the nation and people are saying you’re out of touch with the Democratic Party.”
Her early challengers say it’s time to shake things up.
“We don’t need to work across the aisle. We don’t need bipartisanship. We don’t need compromise. What we need to do is fight,” said Pat Harris, a Studio City attorney and one of five little-known Democratic challengers who have opened committees to run against her.
“I don’t think Dianne Feinstein is the biggest problem in Washington,” said Harris. His platform calls for single-payer health care, tuition-free college and a national $15 per hour minimum wage. “I just don’t think she’s part of the solution.”
Better-known names also are under discussion in Democratic circles as possible candidates. They include Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank and Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
“There’s a lot of pent-up pressure among young, aggressive, more progressive Democrats who are waiting to grab the brass ring,” said South, the Democratic strategist. “I’m not predicting Dianne Feinstein will get a Democratic opponent in 2018, but I honestly believe the chances are better now than they were before (her comments on Trump) ... if she runs again and gets re-elected, you’re not looking at another U.S. Senate race until 2024. That’s an eternity in politics.”
Feinstein clarified her remarks on patience with Trump in a statement after her interview.
“I’ve been strongly critical of President Trump when I disagree on policy and with his behavior,” she said. “... While I’m under no illusion that it’s likely to happen and will continue to oppose his policies, I want President Trump to change for the good of the country.”
Dan Schnur, professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership & Policy, argued that Feinstein can hold onto her seat as long as she wants.
“This progressive energy we’re seeing may be enough to take out a moderate first-time candidate, but it’s probably not enough to defeat Dianne Feinstein,” Schnur said. “It’s hard to think of any plausible statewide Democratic candidate who would want to risk his or her political future by running against a party icon.”
Feinstein has been booed before.
First elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, Feinstein gained national attention two years earlier when she made point of telling a California Democratic Party convention that she supports the death penalty, drawing jeers from left-leaning delegates. She touted the stance, which appealed to less liberal voters, in a defining television ad.
“That ad said volumes about her – Dianne Feinstein is not someone who can be intimidated, and you’re never going to get anything from her other than what’s on her mind,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran her 1990 primary campaign. “One of the things Dianne Feinstein is known for universally is that she’s very tough. She’s willing to get up in front of a crowd that isn’t going to like what she’s going to say.”
Feinstein made some Democrats uncomfortable again this week when she said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, shielding undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children, was on shaky legal ground as she advocated for a legislative solution. “There are 10 (Republican) attorneys general that are prepared to sue,” she said on Meet the Press.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted a link to Feinstein’s comments, suggesting they mirrored the argument U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made when announcing the decision to end the program.
“She said it should be thrown over to Congress ... essentially repeating what Jeff Sessions said,” Pat Harris said. Such comments, he said, “appeal to Trump’s base.”