Pundits, particularly on the right, are warning that the primary challenge California Sen. Dianne Feinstein faces from the left represents an existential threat to the Democratic Party and puts at risk the party’s hopes of taking advantage of President Donald Trump’s cataclysmic approval ratings by winning congressional majorities in November. It was “lunacy,” thundered the editorial board of The New York Post, for a majority of the state party’s delegates to back state Senate leader Kevin de León over Feinstein at last month’s convention. “Historically, the Golden State has been a harbinger of national trends,” the board added. “If that holds true, the whole Democratic Party is headed right . . . er, left . . . off the cliff.”
I’ve heard all this before.
In 2006, insurgent candidate Ned Lamont challenged Connecticut’s moderate Sen. Joe Lieberman, who had served three terms and been the party’s nominee for vice president in 2000. I had a front-row seat for the race as a staffer for Diane Farrell, a Democrat running against a Republican congressman in the state.
Lamont’s message that Lieberman was too supportive of unpopular President George W. Bush and his failed war in Iraq, backed by a plucky coalition of liberal bloggers and anti-war activists, won the day. But after Lieberman’s defeat in the primary, a host of critics declared that by purportedly purging the party of a moderate voice, Democrats had severely damaged their chances in the 2006 and 2008 election.
Farrell, the candidate I was working for, was likely the only Democrat in the country whose defeat could plausibly be pinned on the Lieberman race; she lost by a few thousand votes while running in Lieberman’s home district against Republican congressman Chris Shays, who had endorsed Lieberman’s re-election (two other Democratic challengers beat Republican incumbents for House seats in the state; Lieberman was re-elected in the general election on a third party ticket). Shays lost in 2008 to Jim Himes, who has won reelection by large margins ever since on what is now a safe Democratic seat.
The Lamont and de León primary challenges are quite similar. Connecticut and California each became deep blue states during the decades-long tenures of their moderate Democratic senators. (When Feinstein was first elected in 1992, she shared a ticket with Bill Clinton, who pulled 46 percent of the vote to become the first Democrat to win the state in decades; in 2016, a whopping 62 percent of voters backed Hillary Clinton.) As their states became substantially more Democratic and elected more progressive candidates, party activists criticized their longtime senators for not representing the modern electorate.
Critics want to paint support for de León over Feinstein as a wild swing to the left, the mirror image of the Republican Party’s push for extremist, incompetent candidates that cost them seats in past elections (“Democrats are having their Tea Party moment, if that isn’t unfair to the Tea Party,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board trolled).
Lamont-era Democrats faced a similar challenge. But the de León primary challenge should be significantly less concerning. While Lamont was a Greenwich businessman whose prior political experience consisted of a few terms in that town’s government decades earlier, de León served four years in the state assembly and eight in the state Senate, leading that body for the last three. And de León’s record is difficult to present as radical: He supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2008 and 2016 and his positions seem roughly congruous with California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, who was elected in 2016 with more than 61 percent of the vote.
The Senate primary does put the party’s leadership on the spot. As David Dayen noted in The New Republic, “Every Democrat in the Senate, at a time when they are striving to win back the chamber, will have to answer: Do you support a colleague, or the challenger who best represents the political moment?” That’s surely an annoyance for them. But if the Lamont primary is any guide, the state’s voters will make their choice in the primary, then the party will inevitably endorse the victor.
The warnings about California will no doubt continue -- there’s no story that had been told more often than “the Democrats are about to blow it” -- and will crescendo if Feinstein falters. But there’s little evidence that the result will leave the Democratic Party or the progressive movement worse for wear.
Here at Media Matters, we know this better than most. I first met two other members of our staff during the campaign in Connecticut in 2006. One was a field organizer for Lieberman, one was a blogger backing Lamont. Twelve years later, we’re all watching together as the same narratives play out once more.