.@DianneFeinstein has delivered for CA. At a time when so much we hold dear is under attack, we need her in the US Senate. I stand with her.— Alex Padilla (@AlexPadilla4CA) October 9, 2017
The Democratic party responded to the election of President Trump last November with a cocktail of shock and awe typically reserved for an impending apocalypse. From interest groups advocating for a 2018 secession referendum in California to drastic calls to reform the party platform from supporters of Bernie Sanders, the party appeared to be on the precipice of internal collapse. The phrase “soul-searching” was used to describe the post-Trump Democrats, especially after losses in special congressional seats – and, to this day, the party is still trying to solidify its message among its core constituents and the undecided voters of America.
This process has cast a spotlight on the divisiveness within the party itself. On Oct. 15, Kevin de León, president pro tempore of California's state senate, announced that he would challenge incumbent senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein during next year’s midterm elections. Feinstein is a firmly rooted senator, with loyalists and donors spread across the state. She has consistently voted with Democrats on most issues, and has a positive approval rating among Californians. Most projections predict a sweeping victory for Feinstein, who will enter this race with donor money and familiarity on her side.
“I don't think he has a shot,” Weinberg sophomore Alex Neumann, a native Californian and co-president of College Democrats said. “Feinstein’s an established, long-term senator within an already established Democratic state. De Leon’s bid more signals a change in the party’s ideology than it is a real attempt to win the office. His campaign is more about spreading a message than it is to win the seat itself.”
De León, a former state assemblyman, represents the progressively leaning younger bloc in California politics, whereas Feinstein symbolizes an experienced and knowledgeable leader of older, more moderate Democrats. The ideological divide between the two sides represent one of the largest intraparty debates in the country, and will determine how far left the state’s political pendulum will swing.
“Youth is definitely going to play a role,” Neumann said. “It's always inspiring the party to change and shift. Rather than more youth getting elected to party roles, you'll see youth activists that will push the party in another direction. Pressure from the youth will push the party in the new direction, even though the same people will be in place.”
De León’s challenge is just one instance of a recent trend influencing the Democratic Party’s image before the 2018 midterm elections. In 2016, reports that the Democratic National Committee had passed debate questions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and had favored her over fellow candidate Bernie Sanders angered many progressives, who responded by forcefully interjecting their opinions into the forefront of the Democratic platform. As the progressive wing of the party has gotten louder, party moderates have sought to quell the party’s lurch to the left; the result has been increased political fragmentation and discord among Democrats. Last year’s heated election for DNC chair between moderate Tom Perez and progressive Keith Ellison was the most visible example of the party’s infighting, which was slightly mollified after Perez named Ellison deputy chair. Nevertheless, the establishment must deal with these younger movements as they become more vocal in their platforms.
“[The party] needs to engage with these factions because, like with the Tea Party or with Trump, if they ignore these little factions, they normalize,” Weinberg freshman Andrew Clark said. “[The movements] turn into something they can no longer control. If [moderates] interact with these groups, not necessarily to appease them, but to compromise with them, and find what common ground they have, and incorporate that into the greater establishment ... that’d be a better system than jumping from one policy platform to another.”
If the Democrats cannot portray an image of unity to the public, internal conflict will prevent the party from tackling both the legislative issues they pursue and Trump’s agenda. As the parties prepare for the 2018 midterm elections, California’s senate race should serve as both a message and a warning to the Democratic Party: Risk leaving younger movements out of Congress and face electoral pushback down the line, or accept a platform that could lead to more divisions within the party if no compromises are reached. Either way, the progressive left has firmly entrenched itself within the Democrat platform, and the manner in which moderates deal with progressives will determine the party’s political future.