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Sen. Dianne Feinstein Faces Challenge From Fellow Democrat In California Primary


California is one of eight states holding primary elections tomorrow. And it's California where Senator Dianne Feinstein is running for a sixth term. She's facing a challenge from a fellow Democrat that could go all the way to November. From member station KQED, Scott Shafer reports.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) O say can you see, by the dawn's...

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: At a Memorial Day ceremony in San Francisco recently, Senator Dianne Feinstein invoked the usual tributes of fallen soldiers. And then she asked a question.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: How would they regard this country now? Are we a country that stands for the rights of everybody?

SHAFER: Feinstein didn't mention his name, but it seemed clear her words were aimed at President Trump. In recent months, Feinstein has taken aim at the president for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, the travel ban, opposition to gun control and more. It's a dramatic shift from comments she made about Trump in San Francisco last summer.


FEINSTEIN: I just hope he has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that's my hope.

SHAFER: The comments stirred howls of criticism in this heavily Democratic state. And it prompted Los Angeles Democrat Kevin de Leon, who was then leader of the state Senate, to challenge Feinstein. At the state Democratic convention earlier this year, de Leon made reference to Feinstein's conciliatory comments about Trump.


KEVIN DE LEON: We demand passion, not patience. We speak truth to power. And we've never been fooled into believing that Donald Trump can be a good president.


SHAFER: Asked recently whether she still thought Trump could be a good president, Senator Feinstein had this to say.


FEINSTEIN: I don't believe that a president that lies is a good president. You have the feeling that there is a lack of stability coming out of the White House.

SHAFER: Since the more liberal de Leon jumped into the race, Feinstein has abandoned some of her more conservative positions on drugs, capital punishment and healthcare. But Democratic consultant Garry South says Feinstein has been slow to keep up with the state's changing politics.

GARRY SOUTH: The political terrain in California has moved considerably to the left since Dianne Feinstein was first elected, on everything from gay marriage to recreational marijuana - you name it.

SHAFER: But Feinstein rejects the notion that she's suddenly changed positions for political reasons.


FEINSTEIN: I know what I stand for. I have represented this state for a substantial period of time and hope to continue to do so with energy and enthusiasm.

SHAFER: In the state legislature, de Leon has championed gun control, along with bills to fight climate change and protect immigrants here illegally. Polls show Feinstein way ahead in first place, with de Leon far back battling a relatively unknown Republican for second place and a November runoff with Feinstein. Adding to de Leon's challenge, says pollster Mark DiCamillo, is that this race is being overshadowed by the hotly contested campaign for governor.

MARK DICAMILLO: I think if you probably asked a straight question about is there a U.S. Senate election this year, a good chunk of likely voters would not be aware of it.

SHAFER: Still, under California's unusual primary system, the top two finishers, regardless of party, run off against each other in November. De Leon believes he'd have a decent shot against Feinstein in November if he can just come in second tomorrow.


DE LEON: Because once that happens, the dynamic changes completely. I feel like if we get in the number-two slot, then resources will start coming in.

SHAFER: If he does finish second, de Leon will have a lot of catching up to do in the five months before the November election. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer