California state Sen. Kevin de León got a boost over the weekend in his underdog campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein this fall: an endorsement from the state Democratic Party.
It’s a clear rebuke from party activists to a 25-year incumbent senator of their own party — a sign of frustration, even anger, toward Feinstein’s moderate approach in Washington.
But it might not bring De León as much help as his backers hope.
A Los Angeles Democrat who served as President pro Tem of the California Senate from fall 2014 until this past spring, De León used his deep connections to trounce Feinstein.
He won 65 percent of the state party’s executive board when it met in Oakland on Saturday; she won just 7 percent. The rest of the delegates voted, as Feinstein’s campaign had urged, for “no endorsement.”
“The nation’s most accomplished Democratic Party is leading the call for a new generation of leadership who will fight to advance a bold agenda,” De León said in a statement issued by his campaign after the results were announced Saturday night. “We have presented Californians with the first real alternative to the worn-out Washington playbook in a quarter-century.”
Feinstein’s campaign emailed supporters that the party’s endorsement contradicted the results of the June primary. “Dianne won more than 70% of the Democratic vote in the primary, but now her opponent and his allies are working to overturn the will of millions of California voters,” the email stated.
The party’s formal backing for De León could sway undecided Democrats, particularly younger voters less familiar or impressed with Feinstein’s 25 years in the Senate.
Former state party chairman John Burton, who has endorsed Feinstein, says the party can now raise money jointly with De León — though he notes there are tighter limits on state parties in federal races:
“They don’t call them hard dollars because they’re easy to raise,” Burton said. “The party is going to have to go out and raise hard dollars. And whether they can raise them for a contested Senate race, or people will say, we’ll give money but it should go to the congressional campaign, that all awaits to be seen.”
The endorsement is also sure to boost his low name recognition through his inclusion on statewide party mailers.
“If you’re running against an unknown and you have the party endorsement, that says a lot,” Burton said. “But you are running against an entrenched and fairly popular member of the U.S. Senate.”
And, he added, the endorsement could backfire against the party.
“There will be, I’m sure, some very strong Feinstein supporters” he said, “who will not be contributing to the party to spend against Dianne.”
Perhaps hoping to prevent that fundraising drop, a party official on Monday described “a huge amount of reluctance” to divert any resources away from Democratic efforts to retake the House of Representatives and reclaim a supermajority in the state Legislature.
Translation: Even with its endorsement, the party’s help for De León may be limited.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include the fact that Burton has endorsed Feinstein.