California On, Maine Off

By Jim Ellis

California Senate President Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles)

California Senate President Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles)

Oct. 17, 2017 — Last week we reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced her decision seek a fifth full term next year, and that state Senate President Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) was considering launching a challenge against her from the ideological left.

Sen. de Leon made good on his threat. He will risk his state Senate seat, and legislative leadership position, to enter the US Senate campaign. This will be a prototypical example of the insurgent left attacking the Democratic establishment.

In his announcement address Sen. de Leon said that California “deserves a senator that will not just fully resist the Trump presidency, but also understands the issues that most Californians face every day: that’s fighting for Medicare for all. That’s fighting for our Dreamers. That’s fighting against climate change.” This tells us that he plans to echo many of the Bernie Sanders’ themes forged against Hillary Clinton in the presidential race.

In another post-Feinstein declaration announcement, three-term Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Pleasanton/East Bay Area) confirmed that he will not challenge the senator, but went a step further and formally endorsed her. Also publicly supporting Sen. Feinstein are freshman US Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D).

If no other major candidates enter the race, it is probable that both Sen. Feinstein and de Leon will advance to the general election for another double-Democratic November contest. We remember in 2016 that Sen. Harris defeated then-Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim) in a one-sided race, 62-38 percent.

Clearly, Sen. Feinstein’s strategy will be to isolate de Leon on the left, attempting to lure disaffected Republican and right-of-center non-affiliated voters, a combined group that still comprises about one-third of the California electorate even though a member of their coalition cannot win a statewide election. The bigger challenge will be getting large numbers of these people to vote since they will not have a true candidate on the ballot in either the governor’s or Senate race.

As president of the state Senate, de Leon will be able to attract significant resources to run a credible campaign, even in a place as large as California. So, his chances of advancing to the general election are high if no stronger Democrat enters or the Republicans find a candidate around whom they can coalesce. If the latter scenario occurs, which is doubtful, a lone Republican could attract enough votes to claim the second position, taking advantage of the split Democratic loyalties. Regardless of the final general election scenario, Sen. Feinstein is a heavy favorite to win yet again.

Maine Governor

For better than 10 months, Sen. Susan Collins (R) had been debating whether she would enter the open governor’s race. Next year is favorable for Collins because her Senate seat does not come in-cycle until 2020. Therefore, she could run for governor without risking her current position, and then appoint her successor if she were to be elected.

Earlier in the cycle, polling surfaced suggesting that she would have trouble in the Republican primary in a one-on-one race with former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, a strongly conservative appointee of term-limited Gov. Paul LePage (R). But, the situation has changed. Two more strong conservatives, state Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason (R-Lisbon) and state House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport), have entered the race. This suggests that Sen. Collins nomination path is much more realistic because the three candidates would split the predominant conservative base vote.

All that being considered, however, did not entice the veteran Maine office holder to run for governor. On Friday, Sen. Collins made clear that she will remain in the Senate, saying this is the position where she can best serve her constituents.

With crowded primaries in both parties and the Maine electorate always unpredictable and favorable toward Independent candidates, this open gubernatorial race will open as an early toss-up.

Sen. Collins’ next big political test will likely be the 2020 Republican primary, if she decides to seek a fifth senatorial term. The senator was originally elected in 1996.

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