Kevin de Leon got a burst of national attention last summer when the California Democratic Party endorsed him for U.S. Senate over incumbent Dianne Feinstein. It seemed it could be the spark the former state Senate leader needed to make headway against a Goliath of California politics.
But de Leon never parlayed the endorsement into significant campaign cash to boost his name recognition among California’s nearly 20 million voters. State and national Democratic activists largely stayed laser-focused on efforts to flip U.S. House seats.
Meanwhile, Feinstein blunted some of de Leon’s argument that she’s not tough enough against President Donald Trump when she became the target of Republican ire during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Now, with many early votes already cast and Election Day near, the 85-year-old Feinstein appears headed for a fifth full term in the seat she has held since 1992.
“A lot of things would have had to line up for anybody to defeat Feinstein,” said Eric Schickler, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
De Leon, 51, squeaked through a field of 32 candidates in the June primary to face Feinstein. California is one of just a handful of states that allows two members of the same party to face off in a general election.
Neither had won the party endorsement ahead of the primary. But when the roughly 330-member executive board gathered in July, de Leon came out ahead. He has been more of a fixture at state party events than Feinstein over the years, building up a cache of goodwill, and members of the executive board tend to be the most progressive in the party.
The endorsement earned de Leon a spot on official party mailers and allowed him to open a joint political action committee that could accept bigger donations than his campaign.
But that committee brought in just $374,000, a fraction of what’s needed to buy television advertisements in California. In his campaign account, de Leon raised $1.6 million as of mid-October. Feinstein has raised nearly $9 million and lent herself millions more.
Other high-profile endorsements for de Leon didn’t come with much cash either.
Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has committed spending more than $120 million to elect Democrats this cycle, donated $5,400 to de Leon’s campaign and another $10,000 to the PAC, but he never ran any independent ads on his friend’s behalf. Two major unions, the California Labor Federation and Service Employees International Union California, also endorsed de Leon but did not do major spending on his behalf, although they campaigned for him through door-knocking and direct mail.
Instead, the groups spent big on U.S. House candidates and ballot measures.
“Right now the activism in California is focused on flipping the House,” said RL Miller, a de Leon supporter who is on the party executive board that endorsed him.
When Democratic voters, particularly younger or Latino voters who may not have cast ballots for Feinstein in past elections, learn about his record, they want to support him, his supporters say. But getting that message out in a state as massive as California is tough without money.
“Nobody is in political love with her and Kevin inspires people,” Miller said. “But he hasn’t met 40 million people.”
Feinstein’s supporters think otherwise, pointing to her long and popular history with California voters, not just the party’s most faithful activists. Among Democrats, she counts support from labor hero Dolores Huerta, powerful women’s groups like Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood, and Democratic giants including former President Barack Obama.
“We’re going to stand by Dianne Feinstein. She has stood by us, she has stood by women,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-abortion rights, Democratic women.
She has angered the base on occasion, particularly by suggesting last year that people should have patience with Trump. Some immigrant groups also protested outside her office last year, arguing she wasn’t doing enough to protect young people who are in the country illegally.
Feinstein says passing comprehensive immigration reform will be her chief priority if re-elected. She sparred with Trump and Republicans during the Kavanaugh fight when they accused her of strategically leaking a letter from a California constituent accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct. Trump supporters even chanted “lock her up!” about the senator at a rally. Kavanaugh denied the allegations, and Feinstein has denied that she leaked the letter to the press.
“To hurt her, what you would have needed is a massive amount of money spent on negative ads,” Schickler said. “It helps that Feinstein hasn’t really given them a lot of weapons.”
Feinstein campaigned little in California during the summer and early fall; her aides blamed the Senate schedule in Washington. But she’s spent the final weeks at events around the state made to showcase how she has helped California.
She received a hero’s reception at a Democratic women’s event in Sacramento on Thursday before visiting an Air Force base to view planes she helped procure for California firefighters. She recently ran a statewide television advertisement highlighting her support from newspapers around the state.
De Leon, meanwhile, is zeroing in on Southern California with stops planned in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties where he’ll sell his message that California needs a new voice in Washington. If nothing else, the party endorsement signaled that Democrats want fresh faces, his spokesman Jonathan Underland said.
“I think people have gotten the message that he is the future of the California Democratic Party,” Underland said.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Feinstein acknowledged the power of incumbency she enjoys.
“I remember when I first started it was really hard,” she said.