The state’s top political figures – U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in particular – got a harsh reminder this week that what plays in liberal California might be a liability elsewhere.
Most of Feinstein’s fellow Democratic senators caved in to Republicans on legislation to end a brief federal shutdown after realizing their holdout issue, protecting young undocumented immigrant “dreamers” from deportation, was hurting their mid-term election chances. 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.”
Most Democrats voted to take a deal offered by Republicans – a relatively weak assurance that legislation to protect dreamers would be taken up later.
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Feinstein voted against it, along with California’s 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 told The Sacramento Bee. “She switches now because she has a primary challenge.”
The “natural inclination” epithet harks back 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 Proposition 187, aimed at eliminating public services for undocumented immigrants.
Feinstein didn’t endorse Proposition 187, but her campaign aired an ad 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.
De León is portraying himself as an implacable enemy of President Donald Trump and carried a bill last year to limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
After Democratic senators caved Monday, 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 support: “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.”
Later, she said, “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.”
Obama’s protective order expires in a few weeks and, if nothing happens, vulnerable Democratic senators in other states might benefit. But it would give de León more ammunition to portray Feinstein as ineffective.
Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public-interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California politics work and why it matters. Go to calmatters.org/commentary.