California State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León's announcement to challenge Senator Dianne Feinstein in the 2018 primary election reflects a growing division within California's Democratic party.
Feinstein, a veteran of the U.S. Senate for nearly 25 years and a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is facing backlash from within the progressive side of the Democratic Party for her moderate stance during the President Trump era.
De León currently represents California's 24th Senate District, a region a few blocks north of USC's University Park campus, which comprises USC's Health Sciences campus, parts of Downtown Los Angeles, East LA and northeast LA neighborhoods. De León's new campaign webpage touts him as "a progressive voice for California," and similarly, his Senate campaign announcement video begins outlining his upbringing as a child of an immigrant single-mother who cleaned homes to support her family.
Alec Vandenberg, a sophomore public policy major and the founder of USC's Trojan Advocates for Political Progress, believes Dianne Feinstein's challenge during the democratic primary is a positive step for Californian democracy.
"Even though [California] is generally construed to be a very left-leaning state, I think there are a lot of different shades of blue and … Kevin de León brings a different set of issues and perspectives to the table," Vandenberg said.
While he acknowledged that de León may be "more impressionable" to millennial voters, Vandenberg also said the less-experienced state senator faces an uphill battle against the more popular Feinstein.
"I think a lot of California voters are going to be worried about what happens if a freshman senator takes her place," Vandenberg said, adding how voters could be concerned if Feinstein leaves.
Vandenberg thinks the overall California Democratic ideology is shifting leftward but doesn't see this election as a referendum on that because of Feinstein's presence and popularity.
One way to analyze Feinstein's progressive values is to compare her with Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat who is more ideologically to the left and already holds a U.S. Senate seat from California. Of President Trump's 22 cabinet and administrative nominees, Harris voted yes on only four of them, while Feinstein voted yes on 11.
De León is also a supporter of single-payer health care or "Medicaid for all," a progressive policy stance often not supported by more centrist Democrats like Feinstein, who would prefer to defend the Affordable Care Act.
Former California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a current legislator in residence at the Unruh Institute of Politics, said de León is "trying to tap into the vein of anger and activism that came from the election of Donald Trump."
The current splitting of the Democratic party between centrists and progressives is akin to what happened seven years ago when Sarah Palin ushered in the era of Tea Party Republicans. These Republicans cared more about opposition to then-President Barack Obama than working across the aisle and getting things done, according to Gatto.
"A lot of democrats sat by horrified and said, 'Gee, this is really bad for the long term health of the country; should we really be putting in the power of the bomb thrower?'" Gatto said, referencing the growth of Tea Party Republican members of Congress. "Democrats should look in the mirror too. We're going through the same type of cannibalization of our party."
Democratic voters will have until the California primary elections on June 5, 2018 to decide between Feinstein, de León or any other candidate planning to run in the primaries.