SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Liberal hecklers have protested outside Dianne Feinstein’s home. She’s been confronted at a Los Angeles fundraiser and a San Francisco town hall meeting by progressives angered by her skeptical view of single-payer health care and support for some of Donald Trump’s earliest nominees.
In a state marked by its unfettered resistance to the president, California’s senior senator and ranking Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee is dealing with burgeoning unrest in the party ranks at home, a symptom of the roiling anti-Trump politics on the left. Despite her interrogation of Neil Gorsuch at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Feinstein’s brand of moderation is showing signs of slipping out of favor in a state that delivered a landslide margin against Trump.
Her public approval rating, while still in relatively positive territory, has ticked down.
“The time has absolutely changed for politicians like her,” said Robert Shearer, a state party executive board member who served as a delegate whip for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign last year.
As California Democratic Party activists convened here over the weekend for their annual convention, Shearer said of Feinstein, “We are not going to tolerate it anymore.”
Feinstein has not said whether she will seek a fifth term in 2018. But she has hinted she will, telling San Francisco-based KQED in January that she will “make it formal at an appropriate time.” Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate at 83, is raising money for the effort, and she is unlikely to face a serious challenge if she runs.
Rose Kapolczynski, former Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s campaign consultant, said “there’s no question” Feinstein would win reelection, while Dan Schnur, a political analyst who worked in Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, said Feinstein “can hold that seat for as long as she wants it.”
“There’s a portion of her party’s base is very upset and very motivated right now, so they don’t have as much patience for a pragmatist,” Schnur said. “But that doesn’t mean she’s in any danger in the slightest. … It’s the tension between the party’s base and its center. But certain people in both camps transcend those divisions. That’s Feinstein.”
Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco, has invited conflict with California’s most liberal activists for more than a quarter century, famously — and strategically — provoking delegates at a 1990 state party convention by proclaiming her support for the death penalty in her failed bid for governor.
The boos that Feinstein shouldered inside the convention hall that year resonated among a Democratic electorate less liberal than its convention-going activists would suggest, reinforcing Feinstein’s credentials as a moderate in a state that, for some years after her election to the Senate, remained relatively close to the political center. Since Feinstein first took office, California went for two Republican governors, rejected several tax measures and outlawed gay marriage, temporarily, in 2008.
But in statewide elections last year, California lurched even further to the left, with voters approving a raft of liberal-leaning measures pertaining to marijuana, gun control, taxes and prison and parole. This month, a poll released by EMC Research and Capitol Weekly found that voters who newly registered in 2016 tended to be younger, more progressive and more strongly opposed to Trump than other voters.
Within two months of Trump’s inauguration, Feinstein’s job approval rating had fallen 7 percentage points from early 2016, to 49 percent, according to a nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California poll.
“It’s a tough time to be a Democrat in Congress in California because of just the way people are feeling about Washington in general,” said Mark Baldassare, director of the poll. “You go to town halls and the voters are telling you, ‘No, you have to go and resist, and there’s no possibility for compromise on things. And that’s not been the history of Dianne Feinstein in the Senate. She’s been somebody who is tough. She has standards, she has values that I think she’s been pretty consistent about. But she does understand that as a professional legislator, it’s about how do I get things done. Right now, at least a lot of voters in California, a lot of Democratic voters are not willing to say that’s part of the job description.”
The shifting winds of California’s electorate have been felt at all levels of California government and among its most popular politicians. Reacting to raucous protests pitting far-left activists against far-right demonstrators in Berkeley, Gov. Jerry Brown this month lamented the influence of “polarizing streams” on the political landscape.
“The extremes love to tear the middle down,” he said in an interview on “The Axe Files.” “And the center is not holding.”
Earlier this month, Feinstein came in for immediate criticism when, following the firing of FBI Director James Comey, she released a brief statement indicating only that Trump had called to inform her of the ouster and stating, “The next FBI director must be strong and independent and will receive a fair hearing in the Judiciary Committee.”
Feinstein offered a far more critical assessment the following day, and she was one of the first Democratic senators to call for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor or resign. But her initial statement “really hit people the wrong way,” said Eddie Kurtz, president and executive director of the liberal advocacy group Courage Campaign. “It seemed like business as usual, and we’re not in a business as usual place.”
Over fries and an Arnold Palmer at a restaurant near the convention hall Friday, Kurtz said California “could support someone a lot further to the left” than Feinstein. But in a Republican-controlled Congress where Democratic victories rely on compromise, he said, “she’s so knowledgeable, she’s so smart, and she has the real relationships.”
Gil Duran, a former Feinstein communications director, said Feinstein “could be a progressive hero in a minute” by calling for Trump’s impeachment or making any of “a million moves she could make.” However, he said, “Because of her experience, she’s taking her time. … Her power is in her discipline” and the “great care and scrutiny with which she approaches her work.”
At a town hall in San Francisco last month, Feinstein was confronted by a woman in the audience carrying a “Barbara Lee for Senate” sign — a nod to the liberal congresswoman who represents Berkeley — while chants of “Single Payer Now” rose up and a man yelled, “You’re a hawk.”
Feinstein admonished the crowd, telling activists they could “sit here and pound your fists” but that “I’d be surprised if you found too many senators — if any — that have gotten more done.”
Feinstein does not regularly attend state Democratic conventions in off-cycle years, and her office said she was in Washington during the gathering in Sacramento this weekend.
Feinstein’s longtime campaign adviser, Bill Carrick, said Feinstein is “totally comfortable” in California and that the protests she has faced are par for the course — indeed, the senator casually spoke with protesters outside a recent fundraiser in Los Angeles and stood for their questions at a town hall.
“She’s from San Francisco,” Carrick said. “These aren’t the first protesters she’s ever seen.”