- Sen. Dianne Feintein is seeing the worst approval ratings of her career, with just 30% of California voters approving of her performance.
- Support has slumped among liberals, women voters, and Bay Area voters, a new poll found.
- California Democrats think it’s time for her to step aside and let a new generation lead.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s support is collapsing among California Democrats, signaling an uphill battle for re-election should she choose to run again in 2024 and creating a potential opening for challengers from the state’s younger ranks.
A new poll released on February 16 by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that her approval rating was at an all time low, driven by disapproval from her own party. The decline comes after years of whispered concerns from Democrats about the 88-year-old Feinstein’s ability to carry out her duties, and moments of friction with more progressive wings of her party.
Only 30% of California registered voters approve of the job Feinstein is doing, and 49% disapprove, the poll found, a continued decline in support that began in 2017. Those numbers are due to a collapse in support from key Democratic constituencies like women, young voters, and Bay Area residents, said Mark DiCamillo, who conducted the poll.
“I have to feel that her age is a factor in voters’ minds,” DiCamillo said of the lagging numbers. “Perhaps a number of voters around the state think she’s worn out her welcome a bit. She was certainly viewed positively throughout most of her career.”
Brian Brokaw, a California Democratic strategist, noted that Feinstein could also be suffering from an overall dissatisfaction with Democrats, and Congress, in California. The same poll showed discontent with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Congress overall.
“There’s a general anti-incumbent sentiment you’re seeing from the president on down, and so it’s not surprising that she’s caught up in that,” Brokaw said.
Among California’s Democratic establishment, Feinstein’s age and longevity is a difficult subject given legitimate concerns about ageism and her lengthy career in the state; a former mayor of San Francisco, she’s been in the Senate since 1992. But some party officials feel that it is time for her to step aside and are already speculating about potential replacements.
Speculation runs freely in part because the seat is a relatively safe one for Democrats; Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, would appoint a replacement if Feinstein didn’t finish her term, and California reliably goes blue in statewide and presidential elections.
“A new generation has been building for some time and I would be very excited to see that bench come out,” said Ada Briceño, chair of the Orange County Democrats, who acknowledged that Feinstein had “been leading for a long period of time in California.”
“It’s been really refreshing to see Alex Padilla as our new senator, I’ve been energized by his leadership as a Latina woman,” Briceño told Insider.
RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote and a Democratic National Committee delegate from California, believes that Feinstein “should have retired, she should have not run for re-election in 2018.”
“I appreciate all the stuff that she has done for California over the years,” said Miller, who supported Feinstein’s primary challenger, former state senator Kevin de León, in 2018. “But at the same time, I recognize that there is a newer generation and they need to be given a chance.”
The IGS poll did not ask voters about a preferred replacement for Feinstein, but Briceño named rising stars like Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, both from Southern California, as potential candidates to succeed Feinstein. Briceño said that she hoped an opening in 2022 would create room for a woman or candidate of color to ascend in California politics. Other lawmakers like Oakland-area Rep. Barbara Lee, one of the most prominent Black women in Congress, frequently appear on lists of contenders when statewide seats open up.
Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University, told Insider that seeking a Senate seat in 2024 was a potential option for Gov. Gavin Newsom, as well.
Feinstein’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An appetite for change
The IGS poll found that Feinstein maintains a favorable approval rating from Democrats overall, with 45% of registered voters approving of her performance and 33% disapproving (22% had no opinion). Meanwhile only 7% of Republicans approved of Feinstein, and 88% disapproved of her.
Liberals in particular, who are likely to be key deciders in a primary, disapprove of Feinstein. Among voters who identify as “strongly liberal,” only 38% approve of her performance while 43% disapprove. Meanwhile, only 33% of female voters approve of Feinstein compared to
42%, a significant decline for a senator who was elected during 1992’s historic “Year of the Woman” with significant female support, DiCamillo said.
And while a majority of voters of all age groups disapprove of Feinstein, it’s the younger sets that had the worst opinion. Only 20% of these voters ages 18-29 approved of the job she was doing, compared to 38% who disapproved and 42% who had no opinion of her. Among voters 30-39, 52% disapproved of Feinstein.
Feinstein faced criticism from progressives after video of a confrontational 2019 meeting with teenage climate activists from the Sunrise Movement went viral, amid a push for Congress to adopt a climate resolution known as Green New Deal. Feinstein at times dismissed the young activists for their youth, and told them she did not support the resolution.
She also drew outrage from liberals in 2020 during the confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett. Feinstein hugged then-Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and told him, “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.” The moment led to calls from liberals for her to step down from her leadership post on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The lagging poll numbers portend a tough road ahead for Feinstein, who already faced a serious primary challenge from de León in 2018. News of her filing for re-election in 2024 — a formality most senators will complete years in advance in order to keep their campaign operations running — was met with raised eyebrows, as she’d be 91 years old when she made another run for Senate in 2024.
If she does choose to run again, Feinstein would likely face a slate of primary challengers that could capitalize on her dwindling approval among Democrats. “I don’t think she’s going to be taken seriously if she tries to run for yet another term,” Miller said.
But the decision of whether or not to serve the remainder of her term or run for re-election will come down to just one person: Dianne Feinstein.
“She has earned the right to make her own decisions,” Brokaw said. “I don’t think anybody can or should attempt to tell her what to do. That said, they will. But it’s up to her.”