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What the Democratic Party's civil war in California actually means

Over the weekend, the California Democratic party formally endorsed state legislator Kevin De Leon over Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as the two run against one another this November.

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Analysis by Chris Cillizza (CNN Editor-at-large)
(CNN) — Over the weekend, the California Democratic party formally endorsed state legislator Kevin De Leon over Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as the two run against one another this November.

How big a deal is that? And does it mean Feinstein could lose in the fall? I reached out to Los Angeles Times political reporter Seema Mehta to get some answers. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: How expected -- or unexpected -- was De Leon's win the endorsement fight? Did Feinstein play to win?

Mehta: The endorsement was notable because the state Democratic Party was rejecting a woman who has represented California in the US Senate for more than a quarter century, but it was not unexpected. De Leon came close to winning the state party endorsement earlier this year during the party's pre-primary convention in February. He has long cultivated relationships with key party constituencies such as labor, has been a fixture at Democratic gatherings and called practically every single delegate seeking their support before the executive board meeting this past weekend.

In contrast, Feinstein has been a less frequent presence, partly because her day job means she spends the bulk of her time 2,500 miles away in Washington, DC. Feinstein's team saw the writing on the wall and made the strategic decision NOT to play to win, but instead urged delegates to vote no endorsement in the race.

Cillizza: Does the endorsement of De Leon speak to a wider unhappiness with DiFi among California Democrats? If not, why not?

Mehta: The endorsement speaks to unhappiness among Democratic Party members and activists. But as we see in other states, these groups do not always reflect the broader Democratic electorate. The average state Democratic Party member is more liberal than the state's average registered Democratic voter, a divide that was exacerbated by the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary battle in 2016. In the aftermath of that election, a large number of Sanders supporters were elected as state party members. That resulted in a bitter chairman's race last year, with the party nearly evenly divided between the traditional/establishment members and the insurgents. In contrast, Feinstein got more than two million more votes than De Leon in the June primary.

Cillizza: De Leon got 11% of the vote in the June primary. Feinstein got 44%. Is there any reason to suspect the race is shifting away from her?

Mehta: Not unless De Leon can translate the endorsement into some major fundraising, because he needs to raise his name ID fast and that is enormously expensive in California with our multiple pricey media markets. While De Leon was a powerful legislative leader and is well-known in Sacramento political circles, the average California voter has little idea who he is. In the primary, Feinstein beat him in his own legislative district, where voters should know him best. And even if De Leon can raise the funds necessary to introduce himself and his views to California voters, Feinstein is one of the wealthiest members of the US Senate and can easily write another seven-figure check to boost her effort.

The endorsement does allow De Leon to fundraise with the state party and means he will see his name on state party mailers to voters, which could help him among low-information voters. However, the state party is hyper-focused on the California congressional districts that are represented by Republicans but voted for Clinton in 2016 -- winning several of these seats is key to Democrats' efforts to take control of the House. These races are where state party leaders plan to aim their federal dollars, not on a Democrat-on-Democrat Senate race against an incumbent viewed by many Democrats as an icon.

Cillizza: Let's assume De Leon loses in the fall. Is there a future for him in California politics -- and where?

Mehta: It depends. He has clearly established strong relationships with key constituencies that endorsed his insurgent bid, including powerful labor unions such as SEIU and donors such as Tom Steyer, a billionaire who is one of the biggest Democratic donors in the country. Also De Leon has been a leader of legislative efforts important to Democrats, notably single-payer health care and climate change. But I think it depends on how he carries himself during this race. De Leon is cognizant that he needs to be careful in how he argues that he is calling for generational change without making his attack about Feinstein's age or gender. Basically, he needs to not pull a Rick Lazio. (From when he was debating Hillary Clinton during the Senate race in New York in 2000.)

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "If you asked the average California Democrat to describe Dianne Feinstein in one word, that word would be ________." Now, explain.

Mehta: I am going to get in trouble for this, but: "old-timer."

This word cuts both ways. For Feinstein's supporters, it points to the knowledge and relationships she has earned during the nearly three decades she has represented California in the Senate. She was the author of the federal assault-weapons ban, and has been a a prominent voice on important issues and events such as the CIA torture report and the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting.

As the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feinstein will certainly be in the headlines during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But for Feinstein's critics, it points to the fact that she was elected to the Senate in 1992, and that the state's population and politics have changed since then. They seized upon Feinstein's remarks last year calling for "patience" with the president to claim that she has lost touch with the modern-day Democratic Party. They argue that while they appreciate Feinstein's service, it is time for a new generation of leadership that more represents California in 2018.

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