California Politics: Feinstein’s popularity plummets

Sen. Dianne Feinstein sits in a wheelchair and is surrounded by staff
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), surrounded by staff, departs a Senate Judiciary Business Meeting at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Ahoy! It’s Ben Oreskes filling in while Laurel Rosenhall is on special assignment. I’m here with a quick swing through the world of California Politics, which is always exciting but has truly been a barnburner of late. I’m normally based in Los Angeles covering state and national politics, but these last few weeks I’ve been in Washington, which is where I’m writing to you from now.

A crowded top two

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s health has been a subject of ample intrigue in recent weeks, and our latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies/Los Angeles Times poll has plenty of insights into voters’ views on the topic. But let’s for a minute focus on the race to replace Feinstein and the question that has some Democrats dyspeptic.

Will two Democrats escape from the jungle primary and face one another in a runoff, or can a Republican consolidate support and make it out?

This poll, which is the first to include Republicans, suggests the latter is possible. Among voters likely to take part in the primary, Los Angeles attorney Eric Early has support from 18% of those surveyed. Rep. Katie Porter is close behind with 17%, followed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff with 14% and Rep. Barbara Lee at 9%. Roughly 4 in 10 likely voters either are undecided or plan to vote for someone else.

Although the 2016 and 2018 Senate elections featured two Democrats facing off in the general election, “the possibility does exist that it could be a Democrat versus Republican, and whoever that Democrat is, I’m sure they’re rooting for that outcome because the election is pretty much over if that happens,” says Mark DiCamillo, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies poll and a longtime California pollster.


Remember, Democrats have an overwhelming voter registration advantage in the state, and if Early or any Republican were to make it out the primary, he or she would likely get slaughtered in the general election. Not a single Republican candidate has won a statewide election in California since 2006.

“Even this early in the race I can absolutely guarantee that California will not be represented by an antiabortion, extremist Trump supporter,” said Anna Bahr, a California-based Democratic political consultant who previously worked for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“I will stake my career on it.”

Still the prospect of a Republican candidate making it out of the primary will give the trio of prominent Democrats running some anxiety.

Poor polling for Feinstein

A source close to Feinstein told me recently that the longtime senator has little time or interest to worry about opinion polls. For years, calls for the California Democrat to not run again or step aside have only grown louder. But she stuck it out,won again in 2018 and now remains resolute in her desire to finish out her term.

Earlier this month, the former San Francisco mayor returned to work after several months away recovering from a case of shingles. She also suffered a case of encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that is a complication of shingles and can cause memory loss.

Despite her visibly diminished state, you only need to go into Feinstein’s past to understand her intransigence right now. Times political columnist Mark Z. Barabak spoke with her biographer Jerry Roberts, who explained: “Independence is probably Feinstein’s most salient character trait. But also a belief in herself to the point of stubbornness, where nobody is going to tell her what she can or cannot do.”

So Feinstein’s cratering popularity among voters of all stripes will likely not matter to her. But it might interest you. According to the survey, nearly two-thirds of registered voters said her illness shows she is no longer fit to serve. That sentiment spans the ideological spectrum, including 2 out of 3 Democratic voters. Just 20% of voters disagreed.

Her image with voters has also worsened. Her favorable rating has dropped nearly 20 percentage points since she won a fifth term in 2018, with just 29% now holding a positive view of Feinstein.

Much of her decline in popularity came in the last three months — with favorable views dropping 8 points since voters were last surveyed in February. Just over half of voters, 52%, now have an unfavorable view of Feinstein and 19% have no opinion. Democrats, in particular, have grown more negative.

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Clinton’s California cool

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was real focused in on our politics this week. Clinton has endorsed Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis’ bid to replace Gavin Newsom in 2026. Now that may seem like a long way off, but Kounalakis getting in the race early and trotting out big-time endorsements like Clinton seem like efforts to scare off the competition.

There’s speculation and some reporting that Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta is thinking of running. Former State Controller Betty Yee says she‘s running. So Kounalakis might be hoping that her wealth and high-profile connections can keep others from jumping into the race.

Clinton this week also weighed in on Feinstein’s return to the Senate, telling Time magazine that she shouldn’t resign. She said that if Feinstein were to depart, Republicans would never allow a Democrat to be appointed to replace her, so it’s essential she stay in office and voting to confirm President Biden’s judicial nominations.

“Let me say a word about my friend and longtime colleague Dianne Feinstein,” she continued. “First of all, she has suffered greatly from the bout of shingles and encephalitis that she endured. Here is the dilemma for her: she got reelected, the people of California voted for her again, not very long ago. That was the voters’ decision to vote for her, and she has been a remarkable and very effective leader.”

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