Progressive Democrats are flexing their political muscles in California, pushing hard for their increasingly liberal agenda and doing their best to shove aside any candidates who could be viewed as moderates in one of the nation’s bluest states.

Share story

SAN FRANCISCO — Progressive Democrats are flexing their political muscles in California, pushing hard for their increasingly liberal agenda and doing their best to shove aside any candidates who could be viewed as moderates in one of the nation’s bluest states.

“Young, diverse, progressive candidates are how we’re going to win in California, not through Milquetoast corporate Democrats,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Voters are fed up with the current system and want to know someone will challenge the rigged political system and rigged economic system.”

But for Democrats desperate to flip conservative-leaning congressional districts now held by Republicans, there’s concern the party’s move to the left may be taking them where most California voters don’t want to go.

A January statewide poll of 1,000 residents done by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that only 18 percent of California’s likely voters identified themselves as “very liberal,” compared to 31 percent who styled themselves as “middle of the road.” Among only Democrats, the progressive number rose only to 28 percent.

“You have to have the middle to win,” said Mark Baldassare, CEO of the institute and a pollster in California since 1980. “Getting to the middle is critical to success in California.”

But for the activists who filled the San Diego Convention Center for the California Democratic Party convention last weekend, that was a concern for another day.

Progressives showed their power as their delegates blocked what typically would have been a routine endorsement for 25-year Sen. Dianne Feinstein and pushed former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa into the fourth spot in the party’s endorsement for governor, despite recent polls showing him running a close second to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The results of last Saturday’s vote, with only 37 percent supporting a Feinstein endorsement, “is an astonishing rejection of politics as usual,” Democrat state Senate leader Kevin de Leon, who is challenging Feinstein, said in a statement. “California Democrats are hungry for new leadership.”

It’s not just Democrats who will vote on Nov. 6, however, and there are plenty of questions about whether all Californians are looking for that new leadership. The PPIC January poll found that Feinstein had a 47 percent to 17 percent lead over de Leon among all likely voters and a 67 percent to 19 percent margin with likely Democratic voters.

“Feinstein running for re-election represents a seriousness,” such as her service on the Senate intelligence and judiciary committees, said David McCuan, a political-science professor at Sonoma State University. “But she may be out of step with the changes going on in the California (Democratic) base.”

That’s why Feinstein was shocked at the loud boos and harsh progressive attacks when she suggested in a San Francisco speech last August that Trump, with changes in attitude, had the potential to be a good president and that she was willing to work with him.

And when Republican Doug Ose, who dropped out of the governor’s race earlier this week said that with no GOP candidate in the Senate race, “I will be wholeheartedly supporting Dianne Feinstein,” that wasn’t seen by progressives as a strong and welcome bipartisan appeal, but rather as a sign that Feinstein’s policies score well with Republicans.

In the past, Democrats “have been willing to give a bit on things we care about to get things done,” said John Vigna, communications director for the state Democratic Party. “Now we’re testing whether that dynamic is still there.”