America is a young punk country with a knack for reinvention — political traditions don’t stick to our ribs. In case you needed any proof, look to California. Not 30 years ago, it helped elect George H.W. Bush, part of a 20-year streak of voting for Republican presidential candidates, including two of its own native sons, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Arianna Huffington was a prominent California Republican many, many naps ago, and Joan Didion was an unabashed Goldwater Girl who once wrote that if Barry Goldwater had “remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election.”
But times have changed. “California,” especially for those of us who come from “not California” — that gray, dreary expanse that extends for 2,500 miles east and north of the state — has become shorthand for “liberal.” A sanctuary state powered by Moonjuice and tech money, it has become a defiant Democratic anchor in the Trump era, ironic for a place that rests on inherently shaky ground. Hillary Clinton won it with 61.5 percent of the vote in 2016, turning even Republican enclaves like Orange County blue.
Throughout more than two decades of shifts, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has remained a California constant. But as Feinstein campaigns this year for a sixth term, the state’s unabashed liberalism has given her a rough go of it. Progressives have deemed her to be insufficiently left-leaning — she was booed at a 2017 town hall for saying she wasn’t for single-payer health care — and now she’s facing a more serious primary challenger than she’s seen in many years: Kevin de León, a progressive state senator from Los Angeles. Thanks to the state’s “jungle primary” on Tuesday, in which the top two vote-getters regardless of party move on to the general election, de León could well remain a thorn in Feinstein’s side all the way through November.
De León’s progressive politics and origin story as the son of a single immigrant mother are in line with the left-leaning tilt of present-day California. He’s for single-payer health care, has criticized Feinstein for taking too centrist a stance on immigration in a heavily Latino state, and has made environmental issues front and center in his campaign, winning the endorsement of billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. Feinstein, on the other hand, seems somewhat out of step with the state grass roots, though she’s been tacking left during the primary election; she didn’t secure the Democratic Party’s endorsement at a state convention in February, and she lost endorsements from the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association to de León. Given the advantage of her incumbency and fundraising, those moves were largely symbolic — but powerfully so. They cast Feinstein as a California politician of another era, one that favored moderates rather than excoriated them.
But it’s unlikely that this is the year something changes. Feinstein is heavily favored to win — recent polls put her as much as 24 points ahead of de León.
So why hasn’t California, blue as blue can be, moved past its moderate senator? The state’s population shifts have moved it steadily into the safely Democratic column, but that doesn’t mean that its electorate is progressive enough — or angry enough at the Democratic establishment status quo — to rock the boat.
The Consummate Moderate
When Dianne Feinstein won her first Senate race in 1992, 47 percent of the state electorate was Democratic, and 40 percent was Republican. Two years later, she faced a close re-election battle against Republican Michael Huffington and won by only 2 points.
Her ideological leanings at the time reflected the relatively competitive political environment. In her first Congress, Feinstein was considered a moderate Democrat based on her DW-Nominate score, which rates members on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to +1 (most conservative). Feinstein had a -0.302 DW-Nominate score; for comparison, her fellow senator from California, Barbara Boxer, had a score of -0.439, which was on the liberal end of things for that Congress.
Present-day California looks much different than it did when Feinstein became a senator: 45 percent of the electorate are now registered as Democrats, and 25 percent as Republicans. Feinstein won her last election by 23 points.
Yet Feinstein’s current DW-Nominate score (-0.267) is more moderate than the one she started with. Her fellow California senator, Kamala Harris, has a -0.706 score, which is nearly as left as liberals go in the highly polarized 115th Congress. Feinstein has voted with President Trump 26.4 percent of the time, though based on Trump’s 2016 vote margin in California, she would have been expected to support him on just 19.5 percent of votes. By contrast, Harris would have been expected to vote with Trump 19.3 percent of the time, but her Trump score is only 15.1 percent.1 Feinstein was booed at a speaking engagement last summer for saying that she hoped Trump would become a good president.
Longtime Feinstein adviser Bill Carrick called the accusations from California progressives that she isn’t liberal enough for the state “ridiculous.”
“She voted against every single serious, substantive issue that has come on the floor against Trump — she has a long history of being out there on progressive issues like choice and the environment and economic fairness, civil rights,” he said. “Just because someone has a narrative doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Feinstein has always been viewed somewhat skeptically by the most left-wing factions of the Democratic Party, according to progressive columnist and longtime California political watcher Harold Meyerson, former editor at LA Weekly. The first time he remembered seeing Feinstein was at the 1990 Democratic state convention, when she was running for governor against Republican Pete Wilson and looking to prove her moderate bona fides. “She said something to deliberately get the delegates to boo her by asserting her support for the death penalty,” Meyerson said. “I remember sitting there with folks in the press section saying, ‘Damn, she said that and she’s going to get an ad out of that.’”2 The problem with Feinstein, Meyerson said, “is that she’s still living in that California which no longer exists.”
The booing, it would appear, is a career-long trend.
Feinstein’s tenure has overlapped with two major demographic changes in California: an ever more diverse racial makeup and ever-shifting patterns of economic migration.
In 1992, when Feinstein was first elected, California was home to nearly 30 million people, 57 percent of whom were non-Hispanic white, 26 percent Latino and 10 percent Asian. Now the white population has fallen to 38 percent, while Latinos have risen to 39 percent and Asians to 14 percent of the state’s population of nearly 39 million. The implications of that are easy enough to ascertain: The growth of these Democratic-leaning populations has only served to strengthen the party’s foothold in the state.
Just as important, though, has been the state’s economic migration since the end of the Cold War.
The recession of the early 1990s hit California hard. During the Cold War, the state was a magnet for aerospace and defense dollars, but as the decades-old international tensions wound down, so did spending in the military-industrial complex that had served as a tent pole of the state economy. The effects of federal defense spending cuts were percussive. According to a 1995 report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, there were 337,000 California aerospace jobs in 1990 but only 191,000 by 1994. A 1998 report estimated that the state lost 720,000 total jobs during the downturn.
Residents began to leave California in droves. According to a 2000 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, the state saw a net loss of 2 million people to other states from 1990 to 1999. Washington, Texas and Arizona were the top destinations for California expats, 71 percent of whom were white. Most who left were in families with children, and just under half of adults leaving the state had a high school education or less. About 700,000 were “poor or near poor.” The economic opportunity in the state had dried up for those used to the state’s Cold War paradigm — largely middle-class and lower-middle-class Californians.
While white, middle-class residents were leaving, wealthy, well-educated whites from states like Illinois and New York arrived as the state’s tech sector grew. Between 2007 and 2016, California had a net loss of residents but saw migration gains among those who made at least $110,000 after they moved to the state, according to an analysis by Brian Uhler and Justin Garosi of the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
“There’s two big factors driving domestic migration in California,” Uhler said. “California is more likely to have net out-migration than in-migration just because it’s more expensive to live here. But there’s a counterweight, at least in certain parts of the economic cycle, of higher income and job growth in California than the rest of the country, especially in the Bay Area.”
Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said that many of California’s well-educated white migrants were operating in a new sector with new norms and practices, and that had the effect of changing political attitudes in the state. “It was socially liberal, and economically, it was reasonably conservative but not super conservative,” he said of the new Silicon Valley culture, a stark contrast from the old-economy jobs that had once dominated the state. “Just a different kind of person fills these kind of jobs.”
California’s economic transition helped make the state’s white population more primed to vote Democratic. In 2016, California’s white electorate favored Clinton over Trump by 5 points, bucking the national trend for the white vote. This might also be because of the high education level of white people in California compared with white people nationwide: 42 percent of non-Hispanic whites in California have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with the white national average of 31 percent, and Americans with higher educational attainment favored Clinton over Trump.
There were signs prior to 2016 that California’s white population was more likely to buck the demographic’s nationwide trend of voting Republican. Whites in California flip-flopped between Republicans and Democrats, voting for Bush, Obama and Romney. White women in California voted Democratic since the 2004 Kerry/Bush election.
“Everyone talks about the diversity part,” McGhee said, referring to California’s growing Latino and Asian cohort, “but if you look at the demographic complexion of Texas, it’s actually very similar [to California], and yet Texas is much more Republican. And it’s not because the Latino population in Texas votes Republican. It’s because the white population votes Republican. It’s a combination of these two things that has pushed California way heavily into the Democratic camp.”
Yet Feinstein is still the favorite
So if the state is getting bluer, why Feinstein and not de León?
First, it helps to be an incumbent. Feinstein’s campaign cash reserves top $10 million compared with less than $700,000 for de León, and she has received endorsements from the likes of former President Obama along with numerous state officials and newspapers. “If this were an open seat in a different political environment with a different president, de León would be a strong contender,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote. “But Feinstein’s experience and influence are too important to pass up.”
And there are cultural forces at play, too. California went from tilting blue to becoming the undeniable fortress of the Resistance in the span of a couple of decades. But just because there are more Democratic-leaning voters in the state doesn’t mean that there are enough lefties to swing the balance toward a less “establishment” candidate like de León.
California’s white population, which tilts slightly more conservative than the rest of the state, holds outsized sway in its open primaries and the state’s general elections. According to a 2017 analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California, 61 percent of the state’s likely general election voters are white, though non-Hispanic whites only account for 43 percent of the adult population; Latinos are 18 percent of likely voters but 34 percent of the adult population. Homeowners are also more likely to cast ballots in California than its many renters facing sky-high housing costs: Sixty-four percent of likely voters were homeowners, while 66 percent of unregistered adults were renters.
The state’s primary electorate is similarly skewed. In a 2014 analysis of 11 election cycles, McGhee showed that the state’s primary electorate tends to be much less diverse, with fewer young voters. The 2012 fall general election, for example, had a 7-point higher share of Latino voters than the primary.
California voters are also more ideologically split than what the state’s reputation might project. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, whites in California identify about evenly as liberal (36 percent) and conservative (39 percent), with 25 percent saying they are “middle of the road” politically. Latinos identify more as liberal (38 percent), with 29 percent calling themselves “middle of the road” and 33 percent identifying as conservative. Black and Asian voters, smaller portions of the state electorate, identify much more solidly liberal.
The Senate primary, like so many other inter-Democratic battles since the 2016 election, has debated the virtues of vocal systemic change versus the power of establishment influence in uncertain times. California voters might not be as radical as their reputation makes them out to be. Many appear comfortable with the status quo or are prospering in the new California. Garosi pointed out that many of the state’s debates are over traditionally nonpartisan issues. “One of the interesting things about California is that a lot of our political conflicts aren’t so much left vs. right as pro-development vs. anti-development,” he said.
Now that California is so deeply Democratic, how its future politics will shake out is an open question. What is sure is that the electorate will look very different in the future. McGhee said California is going through what he calls an “eligibility revolution,” with Latino and Asian residents becoming eligible to vote faster than the same populations in other states. “All the growth in the Latino community is the children of Latino immigrants who are citizens,” he said.
“There’s a lot change going on, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring — that’s just inexorable change.”
CLARIFICATION (June 5, 2018, 2:15 p.m.): We’ve updated this article to make clear that California saw a net loss of 2 million people to other states from 1990 to 1999.