Saturday, October 1, 2011





For a misleading moment early this fall, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein – for 20 years one of California’s most formidable political figures – looked extremely vulnerable in next year’s election.

First, the usually reliable Field Poll showed the three-term Democrat with only a 43 percent approval rating, the lowest she’s ever had heading into an election year. About 39 percent of voters disapproved of her performance, while 18 percent were undecided.

Then her campaign treasurer was accused by the federal Justice Department of diverting more than $670,000 from the account of a Southern California assemblyman to personal accounts used for expenses like credit card bills and payments to her mother’s nursing home. That treasurer, Kinde Durkee, also held almost $5 million in Feinstein campaign money and the 78-year-old Feinstein feared much of it may have been embezzled.

So we had a three-term incumbent senator who seemed weakened to an unprecedented degree. And then she acted.

All Feinstein had to do to quiet the furor over her rumored possible political demise was write a check. So she did, plunking $5 million of her own cash into her campaign just three weeks after the Durkee story broke, at a time when the bank Durkee used was refusing political committees access to Durkee-managed accounts unless they signed releases freeing the bank of responsibility for any potential fraud. Feinstein’s campaign refused to be cowed and did not sign. Then it sued the bank for a refund of any money lost.

In fact, she’s not cowed by any of this. When it came to putting her own funds into the campaign, that was nothing new. She plunked about the same amount into both her 2000 and 2006 reelection drives, just not so early.

Once her campaign accounts become completely available, she’s likely to have at least $8 million on hand heading into the election year, with no primary opposition and the main fund-raising season ahead. Because her own estimated net worth tops $45 million and husband Richard Blum’s amounts to an estimated $400 million, potential opponents know she can write other big checks anytime she likes.

Obviously, conservative activist Michael Reagan, son of an ex-president and ex-governor and a longtime talk show host, knows this. For weeks, there were rumors he would contest Feinstein. But just one day after Feinstein wrote her check, Reagan ended that talk. “I’m not crazy enough to run,” he told a reporter.

Feinstein, who won with 59.5 percent of the vote in 2006, had clearly learned well the lesson taught by the late former Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who also served more than three terms: Sock away big money early and you’ll decrease the chance of any significant opposition. This certainly worked well for Feinstein in her last election – her Republican opponent was the obscure former state Sen. Dick Mountjoy, a fringe candidate at best.

She also knows that any incumbent will suffer poor ratings when the overall job approval rating of Congress stands at 15 percent or less, just about the lowest ever. But as former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell of Maine pointed out in an interview when Cranston drew some poor pre-primary numbers during Mitchell’s time as Senate majority leader, “Those ratings won’t matter a bit until voters see the alternative. Until they have someone to compare the incumbent with, all the disapproval in the word doesn’t count for much.”

For Feinstein, then, a lot depends on how significant her opposition might be. So far, the only Republican expressing much interest in running against her is Orly Taitz, an Orange County dentist and lawyer best known as a leader of the “birther” movement that challenges President Obama’s eligibility for his office. Just what a marginal figure she is was demonstrated when federal District Judge Clay Land of Atlanta, GA, ruled last year that Taitz's behavior in a case where she claimed Obama could not order troops to Afghanistan “borders on delusional” and “demonstrates bad faith,” and then fined her $20,000 for wasting the court’s time.

But who else does the GOP have? With no Republicans in statewide office and California voters traditionally refusing to elect non-celebrity candidates in their first run for major office, there are no obvious opponents unless former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes an attempt. But he declined to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer last year, when her ratings were worse than Feinstein’s are now. Since then, he’s been saddled with the scandal of having fathered a child with his family’s housekeeper.

All of which means anyone who thinks Dianne Feinstein is really vulnerable next year probably ought to guess again.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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