California Senate Race Exposes Rifts in Democratic Party

I am proud to be a Democrat and I wish Bernie were, too.

- Hillary Clinton

Coming out of the 2016 presidential elections it looked like the Republican party was hopelessly fractured. Trump had steamrolled past primary opponents favored by the establishment turning party orthodoxy on its head. After a failed last-minute attempt to block his ascension at the convention, the party faithful fell into line and prepared themselves for a certain loss; they would regroup in 2020 and take on Clinton for her reelection.

But then Trump beat the odds and won. The Never Trumpers fell away along with long-standing planks in the Republican platform. The party that used to believe in free trade sat by while Trump instituted ill-conceived tariffs and started trade wars. While they once responded to complaints of abuse by police officers with the retort of “blue-lives matter”, no defense was forthcoming for career FBI agents subjected to Trump’s unsubstantiated charges against them. Former deficit hawks who used to insist on “pay for” for any social program gladly voted for a tax bill that primarily benefited corporations and the 1% while ballooning the deficit and increasing income inequality.

Apparently, power not only corrupts, but it also provides cohesiveness. While Trump has lower approval ratings than any other modern president except Ronald Reagan at this point in their presidencies, 86% of Republicans give him a positive rating. Right now it looks like he could shoot Abe Lincoln in the middle of 5th Avenue and he would still maintain the overwhelming support of his party.

The Democrats are stuck in a reality that is a mirror image of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle. The 2016 elections have left deep fractures within the party that has been thinly covered by the unity in resisting Trump’s policies. Bernie supporters still harbor resentment for a primary process that is blatantly skewed towards establishment candidates while Clinton’s supporters seek a scapegoat for their candidate's unexpected loss to Trump. Instead of using Sanders’ status as “the most popular U.S. politician” to grow the party, the Democratic establishment has attacked him and his supporters with charges that they are “sexist” and not real Democrats.

California’s open primary provides an opportunity to see how the animosity between the two sides is playing out. In a state rich with Democratic voters, Republicans have been shut out of the general election. This leaves two Democrats battling not only for a Senate seat but for the direction of the party.

Ironically, both candidates are entrenched politicians who beat out progressive favorites Alison Hartson and David Hildebrand in the primary. Dianne Feinstein has held the Senate seat since 1992 and has not debated an opponent since 2000. Despite running as a Democrat, she voted to approve the Bush tax cuts and his incursion into Iraq. Like Betsy DeVos, she supports charter schools. Kevin De León is the former state Senate president pro tem. Like Bernie Sanders, he supports Medicare-for-All as a way to increase access to health care. He has promised to co-sign the College for All Act. While his opponent opposed the 1996 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana, he supports the decriminalization of the drug.

Ongoing divisions within the party were on full display at a discussion group comprised of participants who were all significantly to the left of Trump. Despite the distinct policy differences between the candidates, supporters of incumbent Feinstein expressed bewilderment that anyone would not support their candidate. Like those who insisted that the Berniecrats get in line during the 2016 election, they warned of dire consequences if Feinstein were not reelected. Ignoring the fact that our other Senator also sits on the Judiciary Committee, they warned that the state would be harmed by losing the ranking member. One participant worried out loud about the harm that would come to the party if the “crazy left” were allowed to gain ground.

Senate Candidate Kevin De León

As previously stated, De León is a member of the State Senate and is by no stretch of the imagination an unhinged radical. In fact, the positions espoused by him and Sanders are extremely popular with the American people. A recent poll showed that 51 percent of Republicans supported “a policy of Medicare for All”. In 2017, 47 percent of Republicans supported a “proposal to make four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free.” Marijuana legalization is supported by 45% of Republicans.

In our never-ending election cycle, the 2020 election season will start as soon as the polls close on November 6. If the Democrats are to succeed in reclaiming the White House, they are going to have to ensure that the rifts currently exposed within the party do not explode into divisions that are irreconcilable. We are already paying the price for wounds that were allowed to fester in the last cycle.