The state’s top political figures — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in particular — received a harsh reminder this week that what plays in liberal California may be a liability elsewhere.
Most of Feinstein’s fellow Democratic senators caved in to Republicans on legislation to end a brief shutdown of the federal government after realizing that their holdout issue, protecting young undocumented immigrant “dreamers” from deportation, was hurting their chances in mid-term elections this year. As the Washington Post reported:
“With the shutdown heading into its third day, they were feeling the heat and finding it hard to control the messaging war. Voters in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were getting Republican robo-calls saying Democrats had ‘prioritized illegal immigrants over American citizens.’
“But what the Democratic senators were sensing was something else that shows up in the polls: Most voters do not want to see the government shut down over immigration. And the causes that are articles of faith with the Democrats’ liberal and ethnically diverse base can alienate many voters in conservative, largely white battleground states.”
Most Democrats voted to take a deal offered by Republicans — a relatively weak assurance that legislation to protect dreamers would be taken up later.
Feinstein voted against it, along with her California colleague, Kamala Harris, but she faces a potentially stiff re-election challenge this year from Kevin de León, the president pro tem of the state Senate.
“Until recently, her natural inclination is to be anti-immigrant,” de León, a Los Angeles Democrat, told the Sacramento Bee last week. “She switches now because she has a primary challenge.”
The “natural inclination” epithet harks back two decades, to 1994, when Feinstein was seeking her first re-election to the Senate and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, also running for re-election, was sponsoring a successful ballot measure, Proposition 187, aimed at eliminating public services for undocumented immigrants.
Although Feinstein didn’t endorse Proposition 187, her 1994 campaign aired a television ad, illustrated with shadowy figures, that accused Republican rival Michael Huffington of being soft on illegal immigration.
“While Congressman Huffington voted against new border guards, Dianne Feinstein led the fight to stop illegal immigration,” the ad declared. In her own voice, Feinstein boasted of seeking more border guards, lighting and fencing.
That was then, and this is now.
De León is portraying himself as an implacable enemy of President Donald Trump and carried a bill last year to severely limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
After Democratic senators caved, de León denounced them: “Once again, our party’s leaders in Washington have capitulated, compromised and redrawn a line in the sand even further away from justice.”
Before the Senate vote to end the shutdown, Feinstein issued her conditions for supporting it: “a vote on the Dream Act as an amendment to a must-pass vehicle or lock in an iron-clad agreement that the Democratic caucus agrees with that would pass in the shortest time possible.”
Afterwards, she told the Sacramento Bee, “I’d hoped this would be doable, I’d hoped this would pass. It seemed to make the best sense. It didn’t, so we’ll go on from here.”
But where we’ll go is very uncertain.
Trump sometimes indicates he’d favor protecting the dreamers from deportation but also wants a commitment to build a border wall or otherwise beef up immigration controls.
Former President Obama’s protective order expires in a few weeks and, if nothing happens, it might protect vulnerable Democratic senators in other states. But it would give de León more ammunition to portray Feinstein as ineffective and out of touch with her constituents.