Dianne Feinstein

If Sen. Feinstein Loses Re-Election, It Certainly Won't Be Because She's Not 'Left' Enough

California's top-two primary system helps protect her, but what's her appeal outside of her own party?


Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Ever since Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced she was going to run for re-election, there's been a buzz about whether she'd face a primary challenger from the left.

The answer to that is obviously yes. She's going to probably face several Democrats—and Republicans and independents—in the primary. What's not clear is whether a fragmented group of opponents could draw enough support to genuinely threaten her incumbency.

It's also not clear whether the folks publicly stroking their chins about Feinstein's chances adequately understand how California's primaries work. The result is some awfully ill-fitting, if typical, "horse race" journalism.

California has a top-two primary system for congressional and statewide races. All candidates from all parties face off in a big rugby scrum (look at this Puppy Bowl of people in last year's primary to replace Barbara Boxer). The two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, face off again in November.

This frequently means voters are selecting between candidates from the same party. And this is by design. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris won her seat by defeating a fellow Democrat.

Any story suggesting Feinstein could get bounced out in the primary needs to be treated skeptically. It could happen, but because of the top-two system she'd have to come in third place in the vote, not second. So a Democrat could beat her in the primary, but still have to face her again in November.

Much of the analysis of Feinstein's chances makes no mention of this incumbent-protecting quirk. Two pieces from FiveThirtyEight talk about potential primary challengers, but one of them assumes the winner will be facing a Republican the next fall. This CNN piece about state Senate leader Kevin de Leon taking her on as a challenger from the left grasps how California's primary system works…now. According to the correction at the bottom, both the headline and the story had to be edited because the original version did not accurately reflect the nature of California's primaries.

The reformists who ushered in California's top-two primary system insisted it would make races more competitive and, in cases where two candidates were of the same party, they'd have to work to get votes from elsewhere in order to win. The idea was that a top-two election system would prevent party polarization (watch a ReasonTV interview with a proponent of the system here) and create a more "functional" legislature.

In reality, election participation has dropped. Faced with two Democrats on the ballot, at least 2.2 million Californians who voted for president last fall did not bother voting for a senator.

That means Feinstein is possibly vulnerable, but not in the way the pundits think. Arguing that Feinstein is more "conservative" than Californians is based on how frequently her votes align with what President Donald Trump wants, which is a terrible measure (Trump is an authoritarian with no real discernable political philosophy).

Feinstein holds positions that align with perceptions of conservatism. After all this time, she opposes marijuana legalization. She supports government surveillance of citizens. She's with the law-and-order types in trying to force tech companies to break encryption privacy in order to serve the government's information needs.

But she's also a noted gun grabber and college campus free speech and protest censor. She's not a conservative—she's a statist, in the Michael Bloomberg, nanny-style,"government knows what's best for you" vein, which tracks pretty well with how the California government treats its citizens. To the extent that her votes align with Trump's desires, it's likely because neither of them has much respect for the Bill of Rights.

This also means Feinstein is going to have a tough time capturing cross-over votes. With her history of opposition to gun rights, conservatives are more likely not to vote than cross the aisle and vote for her come next November.

If that happens, Feinstein could lose to a Democratic populist, but it would because of who didn't vote, not because of who did.