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California's Sen. Feinstein Gets Democratic Primary Challenger

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, is up for re-election next year, and she is getting a challenge from a fellow Democrat, someone who is 34 years younger. As KQED's Scott Shafer reports, the race reflects the leftward tilt of the party since last year's election.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Three days after the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Dianne Feinstein walked to a podium in the U.S. Capitol.

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DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Good morning, everybody. I want to thank you all for coming on short notice.

SHAFER: For Feinstein, it was an exasperated return to familiar territory, pushing, pleading almost for new regulations on guns.

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FEINSTEIN: I don't know what to do except to continue to fight because reason doesn't control the situation. You have to say enough is enough.

SHAFER: Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, Feinstein has made gun control a signature issue, pushing through an assault weapons ban in her very first year against great political odds. Feinstein is known as a bipartisan dealmaker who can talk and work with Republicans, but Feinstein infuriated many fellow Democrats recently. Speaking before a live audience in San Francisco, she encouraged patience with Donald Trump.

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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: Among those expressing outrage was Kevin de Leon, president of the California State Senate. Yesterday he released a video introducing himself to a statewide audience and saying he will challenge Feinstein's re-election.

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KEVIN DE LEON: I'm the youngest child of a single immigrant mother. I can remember taking the number 34 bus, where my mom and I would get off the bus. And we would walk up to the homes on top of the hill. There, my mother would spend the vast majority of her day cleaning other people's homes.

SHAFER: The Los Angeles Democrat is a vocal critic of Trump's immigration policies and says that's what's needed in Washington.

DE LEON: Right now we have a president who has California in the crosshairs since day one. We have a president who is a threat to our economic prosperity, to our progressive values and to our people.

SHAFER: In the state Senate, de Leon has championed environmental legislation, gun control, and he recently authored a bill making California a so-called sanctuary state, protecting some immigrants here illegally from deportation.

GARRY SOUTH: He's young. He's 50.

SHAFER: Garry South is a Democratic campaign consultant in LA who thinks voters could find de Leon's personal story and record in Sacramento appealing.

SOUTH: He's a very aggressive campaigner. He's very articulate. He's dynamic. He's charismatic.

SHAFER: And, South says, de Leon might be more in sync with Democrats in California, where Trump's approval rating is below 30 percent. But Feinstein has solid advantages, including nearly universal name ID and money in the bank. Former Republican political operative Dan Schnur...

DAN SCHNUR: Dianne Feinstein's a very, very steep uphill fight for any progressive challenger. But if someone were going to take on Feinstein from the left and make a race out of it, it would almost certainly be somebody with the personal and political biography of Kevin de Leon.

SHAFER: Feinstein still has relatively high approval ratings. But at age 84, there are signs voters might be ready for someone new, something Kevin de Leon is counting on.

DE LEON: I know a race like this - going up against a longtime incumbent won't be easy. But this state needs a different and new kind of leadership, and I'm ready to take on that role.

SHAFER: When Feinstein formally announced her re-election bid last week, she said she was up for a good fight. Whether Kevin de Leon can give her one or not remains to be seen. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE METERS' "LIVE WIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.