Beginning last fall, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein was the target of repeated protests urging her to defend the young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers.” On Tuesday, she got a reprieve.
Many of the same liberal groups that have staged rallies and sit-ins at Feinstein’s offices were back on Capitol Hill, protesting Senate Democrats who voted to end the three-day government shutdown Monday without extending a program that grants those young immigrants legal status. They even rallied outside of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Brooklyn, N.Y. home.
But thanks to Feinstein’s vote against the deal the Senate struck to reopen the government, the California senator was not targeted. And the hard line she has taken on immigration policy in recent weeks improves the chances she will avoid liberal activists’ fire – and perhaps, most importantly, keep them from funneling money to her opponent – as she seeks re-election in November.
Ben Wikler, the Washington Director for liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, told The Bee that the fight to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children from deportation, has become a defining issue for liberals in 2018. President Trump plans to end the Obama-era program in March unless Congress authorizes it. “For progressives, there’s a basic morality threshold of standing with Dreamers,” Wikler said.
And it’s not enough for Democrats to say they support making DACA permanent – virtually all of them do, as do many Republicans. For the liberal wing of the party, the litmus test has become whether lawmakers vote for spending bills that don’t include a DACA solution. Many outside groups, including MoveOn.org, are now threatening to support primary challengers to Democrats who do so.
“At MoveOn, we polled our members in December and found that if Sen. Feinstein were to vote in favor of a spending bill (without a DACA fix), that would have enormously increased the appetite for a primary challenger,” said Wikler.
She has not done so. Feinstein initially resisted calls to vote against any spending bill that didn’t address the immigration standoff. That drew intense pressure from pro-immigrant activists and other liberal groups, who converged on Capitol Hill in December, urging senators to use their leverage on government funding to force a vote on DACA. Feinstein’s main challenger, liberal state Senate President Kevin de León, accused the incumbent of being “AWOL” on the issue because she wouldn’t commit to opposing spending bills absent a DACA fix.
A day later, Feinstein announced she would oppose the short-term spending bill up for a vote on Dec. 22. That measure passed, funding the government through Jan. 19. Feinstein has stuck with her position since, voting against another stopgap measure last Friday that would have kept the government open for another month, while lawmakers tried to reach consensus on spending levels as well as immigration issues. The failure of that vote led to the government shutdown over the weekend.
Feinstein was one of just 16 Democrats who voted against legislation to reopen the government that passed on Monday. “I voted no on the bill today for one reason: It didn’t include the Dream Act, as has been repeatedly promised,” she said in a statement, referring to the legislation that would make DACA permanent.
Feinstein’s stand has earned her the approval, if not full-fledged embrace, of activists.
“She came right on the Dream Act and that’s really important,” said Center for Popular Democracy’s Ady Barkan, who was among the activists leading a Jan. 3 rally at Feinstein’s Los Angeles office to press her on the issue.
“We think that these are the right moves for her to position herself as a viable candidate in the 2018 election,” said Adrian Reyna, campaign manager for United We Dream Action, an organization made up of DACA recipients advocating for the Dream Act. Reyna, who is based in California, said his organization has not gotten involved in primaries in the past, but is considering endorsing challengers to Democratic incumbents who don’t take a hard line on DACA this year.
Whether the group weighs in on the Feinstein-de León race will come down to how much Feinstein takes a leadership role on immigration this year. Reyna pointed to California’s other senator, Democrat Kamala Harris, as an example of a politician who has been “a fighter” on the issue. “Feinstein could very much be playing that role and not playing it safe,” he said.
Other influential liberal organizations are also taking a wait-and-see approach to the California Senate race. Their decisions will have a significant impact on whether de León can put up a real challenge to Feinstein. The Democrats are likely to face off in the primary and general election this year, thanks to California’s top-two primary system.
National groups like MoveOn.org, the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Daily Kos Elections have memberships in the hundreds of thousands – millions in some cases – allowing them to tap into an army of small-dollar donors. Their fundraising has helped boost upstart candidates like Jon Ossoff, who raised a record amount for last year’s congressional special election in Georgia. Money is particularly important in California, one of the most expensive campaign states in the nation.
Some of these organizations have begun their endorsement process, but none have weighed in on Feinstein’s reelection contest.
De León has won the endorsement of Democracy for America, the advocacy group founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. And he is well-positioned to earn the backing of the California Nurses Association, given his embrace of single-payer healthcare, their top priority. But while the powerful union group has endorsed Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the governor’s race, spokesman Chuck Idelson said CNA leaders have not yet met to consider the Senate race. “I’m sure we’ll look at it, it’s obviously an important race,” Idelson said. But he noted that the association does not back candidates in every race.
If groups like the California Nurses Association and MoveOn.org remain on the sidelines of the Senate race, it would be a major blow for de León, and a coup for Feinstein.
De León’s campaign says it is having ongoing conversations with liberal organizations around the state and the country, and is making the pitch that he is a more stalwart defender of their values. De León has also accused Feinstein of moving to the left on immigration because of his challenge.
Feinstein’s campaign adviser, Bill Carrick, called de León’s attacks “outrageous,” pointing to the senator’s longtime support of the Dream Act. And while he acknowledged there may have been some skepticism of Feinstein among activists, Carrick noted that they have not rallied around de León, either. Being skeptical “is part of what being an activist is about,” he said.