Is Senator Dianne Feinstein Really Vulnerable This Fall?

On a Saturday morning at the end of September, Kevin de León, a Democratic state senator from District 24 in Los Angeles, and Pedro Sánchez, the new socialist prime minister of Spain, strode into a small auditorium in the center of the La Kretz Innovation Campus just southeast of downtown LA. Both were wearing dark blue suits, pressed white shirts, their dark hair cut short. The Spaniard had a purple tie, the Californian a blue one. Sánchez had, the previous day, met Governor Jerry Brown in Sacramento. Before that, he had attended a session of the United Nations in New York. While on the East Coast, he had conspicuously avoided making a trip to Washington.

The two men sat down in leather chairs, with the audience of about 60 people—made up of local political figures, environmental-technology innovators, and cultural figures—ranged above them on four rows of green cushioned benches. The cubicles and research spaces of the campus, which is a nonprofit incubator for clean fuel and water technology located in an old brick switch house belonging to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, spread off to the sides around them.

For the next half hour, with secret service personnel from Spain and the United States looking on from the sides, the two men discussed climate change and the urgency of adopting credible policy and technological changes to counter it. Sánchez, who recently created a new government ministry for ecological transition, explained how 40 percent of Spanish land is at risk of being damaged by rising global temperatures. He talked about efforts to stimulate environmental entrepreneurship and reiterated his belief that “climate change is the great global challenge for our governments.”

De León, who authored the stunningly ambitious legislation recently signed by Governor Brown committing California to getting 100 percent of its electricity from clean-energy sources by 2045, talked about how California “has been perhaps the most aggressive major economy on the planet in limiting greenhouse gases.”

In some ways, the event was boilerplate. What was said has been said a thousand times before. What was more important, however, was the message of the visit itself: A major foreign leader was bypassing Washington and talking about shaping global environmental policies with a state politician in California.

Kevin de León is running for the US Senate. Because California now has an open primary, with the top two candidates of any party advancing to the general election in November, this year’s general election is between two Democrats: the 85-year-old incumbent, Dianne Feinstein, and the much younger de León, who until recently was president pro tempore of the State Senate.

Feinstein is the bookie’s favorite, the establishment incumbent with deep pockets. She has coasted to victory in her past several elections, and, in a somewhat imperious style, hasn’t publicly debated an election opponent in 18 years. This time around, she told local media that she would be willing to debate, but until this week, when it was announced that the two would debate next Wednesday in San Francisco, Feinstein’s team had made no moves to actually coordinate a meeting with de León. Starved of the oxygen of publicity that such encounters would generate, and with his campaign lacking the financial reach of Feinstein’s, KDL, as he is often referred to, has instead been running a grassroots campaign, crisscrossing the huge state to drum up support. In one recent two-day period, de León recalls, he visited Chico, Oakland, San Jose, Salinas, Irvine, and San Diego. He has been on the road for months, since well before the June primaries.

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