WASHINGTON — California’s longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein secured the top spot on the November ballot Tuesday after voters overwhelmingly chose her in the primary.
Shortly after polls closed Tuesday night, the question that remained was which one of her 31 opponents Feinstein would face in November. State Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, has been considered the front-runner for the second spot since he entered the race last fall.
If he wins, it would be the second time in a row Republicans have been shut out of a California U.S. Senate race because of the state’s unusual primary system in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party.
But a little-known Republican, James P. Bradley of Laguna Nigel, made a surprisingly good showing in several late polls, raising the specter of a Republican edging de Leon out of the race.
With a fraction of the state’s votes counted on Tuesday night, the two were tied and it was too close to call.
Whoever wins will face a slog trying to take down Feinstein. She is California’s longest consecutively serving politician and has had decades to build support in the state, even as she faces withering criticism from the left over her moderate reputation.
Feinstein raised nearly $13 million ahead of the primary, including $5 million she lent her campaign. She has a $7 million war chest heading into the general election, almost 10 times de Leon’s nearly $700,000. He’s raised just over $1.1 million since he began campaigning.
De Leon, a former state Senate leader who will be termed out after this year, has also struggled to counter Feinstein’s name recognition.
“It’s a really crowded race, [and] she has a track record. I’m not always in agreement with her, but no one else emerged as a leader to sway me from her,” Karin Lash, 45, of Long Beach said after voting for Feinstein on Saturday.
California’s diverse population and huge geographic footprint can make it difficult to poll voters. The addition of a massive field of candidates made it hard to tell whether the last-minute swing in the polls for second place was a fluke or a real sign that de Leon is in trouble.
First elected to a partial term in 1992, Feinstein is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsored the nationwide assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. At 84, Feinstein is the oldest member of the Senate.
Still, Feinstein didn’t get the state party endorsement this year, and she has faced a rash of criticism from activists on the left who were frustrated with her initial willingness to work with Trump. Her opponents say that after a quarter of a century, it is time for new blood in the Senate.
“I think it’s time for some fresh faces in Washington to see more change happening,” said Larry Ambriz, 47, of Long Beach. He voted for de Leon, explaining, “He understands California.”
Feinstein’s position on Trump will probably be a major point of contention in the general election if she faces de Leon, who has embraced the role of an anti-Trump opposition leader, something that the president has fed with his vocal criticism of de Leon’s signature “sanctuary state” legislation protecting California immigrants in the U.S. without documentation.