Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California's most popular politician, garnered 49.3 percent -- less than half -- of the vote on election day Tuesday. Winning 1.8 million votes, Feinstein trounced her 23 challengers handily in what wags call California's "jungle primary." There was no big-name challenger, yet more than half of voters went for Anyone But DiFi.
Feinstein won fewer votes than the failed (for now) ballot measure to increase taxes on tobacco.
Is Feinstein in trouble? Elizabeth Emken, the Republican who won the second-most votes and hence will challenge Feinstein on the November ballot, won 450,000. So probably not.
Feinstein political guru Bill Carrick notes that when absentee ballots are counted, the tally could change. Fewer voters turn out in primaries. (California Secretary of State Debra Bowen reported that 24 percent of voters participated Tuesday, although the percentage will grow as counties tally absentee ballots. The 2008 general election drew nearly 80 percent of registered voters.) California primary voters tend to be more conservative than general-election voters.
Feinstein could have spent money in the primary to boost her showing, but it wouldn't have made a difference. She still would have been in first place. And she beat 23 contenders Tuesday, "more people than she's beat in her entire career," Carrick says.
Don't write that Feinstein's in trouble, Carrick cautioned. "I'm trying to save you from an embarrassing column."
The real story, according to Allan Hoffenblum, former GOP consultant and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, is "how weak" the Republican Party is. Last year, the Field Poll reported that 44 percent of voters were not inclined to vote for Feinstein, and 41 percent were. This year, voters turned out entrenched incumbents from France to Indiana. Yet there is no Republican with a public profile to challenge Feinstein. Two years ago, former tech titans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina were on the ballot. They tanked, and that soured CEOs on state GOP politics.
For months, spokesman Mark Standriff has been pushing Emken as the best Republican because she's an "autism activist." (Oh, great, I think, a Republican who is a champion for a disease that, like government, keeps growing.)
Emken worked for IBM until one of her three sons was diagnosed with autism. The Danville resident later became a lobbyist for autism treatment and prevention.
She certainly doesn't sound like last year's big-money GOP hopefuls. "Aren't we tired of the plutocracy in this country?" Emken asked. She used her organizational and political skills not to chase away opposition but to win the state party endorsement, buy her way onto slate mailers and win the right to challenge Feinstein in November.
OK, Emken probably doesn't have a prayer. At least she may force Democrats to learn some new talking points. The standard playbook, Standriff notes, is to "demonize the Republican candidate as being an out-of-touch, wealthy 1 percenter who wants to throw Grandma off the cliff." Emken doesn't want to gut health care. She expects her son Alex to spend the rest of his life embedded in the health care system.
The GOP brand isn't selling well in California. But neither is Feinstein, who has been in Washington for 20 years. Probably she'll win, but not because Californians love her; they just hate Republicans more.