(AP) — California’s U.S. Senate primary will determine whether 26-year incumbent Dianne Feinstein faces a fellow Democrat who characterizes her as too deferential to the president or someone from a field of largely unknown Republicans.
Feinstein, 84, is seeking her fifth full Senate term.
She points to her seniority on key committees and track record of fighting for gun control and protecting the environment as evidence she deserves another term.
Her most likely challenger is Kevin de Leon , the former state Senate leader from Los Angeles who authored the “sanctuary state” bill to protect immigrants living in the country illegally. It has drawn repeated scorn from President Donald Trump.
De Leon, 51, also promoted clean energy initiatives during his tenure leading the Senate and argues he’s more representative of California’s values.
Thirty other candidates are running, including eight more Democrats, 11 Republicans, two third-party candidates and nine candidates not affiliated with a party. None has the financial resources to mount serious campaigns, and the California Republican Party did not endorse anyone.
Still, with so many candidates dividing the votes, there’s a slim possibility one of the Republicans emerges from the GOP pack with enough votes to finish second and move on to November’s general election.
James Bradley, who helped launch a startup company focused on opioid abuse, earned headlines when he inexplicably finished a close third to de Leon in an April poll. That led conservative San Diego radio host Carl DeMaio to endorse him, providing some name recognition within the GOP.
It hasn’t translated to donations for Bradley, who is 60 and has no elected experience. He has raised less than $5,000. By contrast, Feinstein has spent $3 million since early April.
Meanwhile, Patrick Little, a neo-Nazi running as a Republican, drew headlines when a white supremacist group made calls to news outlets and Jewish organizations urging voters to support him and making anti-Semitic comments about Feinstein. The California Republican Party kicked Little out of its May convention.
“Republican voters aren’t going to know any of these people,” said Rob Stutzman, an adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s last Republican chief executive. “It’s possible that through some unpredictable (events) that one of the Republicans could have Republican voters coalesce around them for no other reason than they sound the best.”
But, he added, “it’s more likely going to be a runoff between Feinstein and de Leon.”
If that happens it would be the state’s second U.S. Senate contest between two Democrats since California switched to a top-two primary system that sends the two highest vote-getters to the general election regardless of party. In 2016, Kamala Harris won the U.S. Senate seat against U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
At the state Democratic convention last winter neither Feinstein nor de Leon received sufficient backing from delegates to win the party endorsement. But de Leon came closer, an embarrassment and wake-up call for Feinstein.
Her campaign has spent heavily on television ads touting her record. She also has made a number of recent appearances in the state.
De Leon has struggled to raise money and create excitement. At a recent campaign stop in front of a sparse audience at the University of California, Davis, de Leon said he’s campaigning at a “relentless pace.”
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said of finishing in the top two.
So far, Feinstein has done little to engage directly with de Leon but has in recent weeks shifted some of her long-held positions leftward. She indicated less resistance to legal marijuana and declared she no longer supports the death penalty , a reversal of a decades-old stance that helped her appeal to independents and Republicans in her early statewide campaigns.
“I think she’s probably making sure she doesn’t give a very energetic and ambitious opponent who has no resources to run a campaign a chance to develop momentum,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks political races.
Feinstein, though, said her ability to evolve on issues should appeal to voters.
“I don’t want to not grow, I don’t want to not learn. The world changes, and views change, and we change,” she said last week in Sacramento. “I think that’s what should make me an attractive senator.”