He could win.
Although he is not yet a household name in California, he could mount a credible campaign. He has strong ties to organized labor and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, both of which have an outsized voice in party affairs. And as a top legislative leader, he is in a strong position to raise money.
Feinstein's situation recalls that of Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) in 1980. Javits was a long-serving, well-respected member of the Senate minority. But as a liberal Republican, he was increasingly out of step with his party. He was also old and in ill health. Al D’Amato, then an obscure local official on Long Island, saw an opportunity. Few gave him much chance at the start, but Javits had never had a serious challenge from within the party, and was late to recognize how deep his troubles were. D’Amato attacked Javits’s liberalism, beat him in the primary and went on to win the general election. (Though he ran to the right in 1980, D’Amato ended up with a moderate voting record in the Senate. Full disclosure: I briefly worked in his office as a Congressional Fellow.)
Like Javits, Feinstein has not had a serious intraparty challenge since winning her seat. In fact, she has not had a competitive race since Michael Huffington’s surprisingly strong showing in 1994. Like Javits in 1980, she is out of practice. Unlike Javits, she does not seem to have any major health problems. But she is the oldest US senator, and she is not as vigorous as she once was. And though her voting record is consistently liberal, her willingness to work with Republicans puts her at odds with the strongly progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Right now, the energy in the Democratic Party is all on the progressive side. At Democratic rallies, speakers do not get cheers when they brag about their bipartisan outreach. A scrappy, energetic progressive like de León could rouse the party base in a way that Feinstein could not. (Bernie Sanders showed the way on that score.)
One might argue that, even if Feinstein ran behind a progressive in the top-two primary, she would win in the general because Republicans would coalesce around her. But suppose there are Democrat-on-Democrat races for both governor and senator – as seems very possible. In that case, GOP turnout would plunge. And even if GOP voters did show up to the polls, many would skip the Senate race, as they did in 2016. In this scenario, a progressive Democrat could win the general as well as the primary.
One catch: progressive billionaire Tom Steyer is thinking about running. If he got in the race, de León would have a harder time. But in a head-to-head contest with Feinstein, we could see a replay of the 1980 Senate race in New York.