California returns Feinstein to another Senate term

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein won re-election Tuesday to the seat she has represented for more than a quarter century, demonstrating her might in California Democratic politics even as she faced a challenge from her left.

She called for a return to more bipartisan and civil politics as she highlighted her pioneering role as one of the first women in the U.S. Senate and as a member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, where she is now the top Democrat.

"This is such a great country and it's been factionalized and it's been trivialized with rhetoric," she said to supporters in San Francisco. "We must stop that."

Feinstein's rival, state Sen. Kevin de Leon, had called for a more aggressive style of representation. Even under President Donald Trump, Feinstein has shown her preference for decorum over bomb-throwing, preferring to work across the aisle when she can.

Perhaps reflecting her comfort in the face of de Leon's challenge, Feinstein told reporters after an October debate she considered herself at the center of the political spectrum and hoped Republican voters would give her a chance.

At 85, Feinstein is the oldest U.S. senator. De Leon, 51, never directly made Feinstein's age an issue but frequently referenced the need for a "new voice."

Speaking to his supporters in Los Angeles Tuesday night, he said the campaign offered a choice between "new ideas and the same old, same old" and "progressivism and privilege."

Still, it was Feinstein's message of proven experience and competence that won over California voters in deep-blue California. She held 54 percent of the vote with 4.6 million counted.

With no Republican in the race, many voters simply took a pass at the contest. At least half a million people who voted in the governor's race did not cast ballots for U.S. Senate.

Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992 after serving as San Francisco's first woman mayor.

Unlike other challenges to incumbents from the left, de Leon's bid against Feinstein failed to generate much attention and energy, perhaps because the seat was a lock for Democrats regardless. California's primary system allows two members of the same party to face off in a general election, and Republicans fielded no serious candidates.

It was California's second U.S. Senate contest in which two Democrats faced off. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris defeated U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez for California's other seat in 2016.

Even though de Leon criticized Feinstein for being too soft against Trump, she drew the president's ire this fall during the fiery confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. A California woman, Christine Blasey Ford, sent Feinstein a letter during the summer accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school, which he denies.

Feinstein kept the letter confidential for weeks but later turned it over to the FBI. Trump and Republicans accused her of leaking the letter to the press in an attempt to derail Kavanaugh's confirmation.

Trump supporters even chanted "lock her up!" about Feinstein during a rally. Feinstein denies leaking the letter and has defended her handling of the situation.

With Republicans maintaining control of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday night, Feinstein will remain minority leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee. During the campaign, she lamented the challenges of operating in Washington in the minority party. When de Leon called for a stronger resistance, Feinstein declared that marching and protesting only goes so far.

"What changes things are elections," she said.

During the campaign, Feinstein focused on her accomplishments in Washington to argue she's been an effective voice for California, citing passage of the California Desert Protection Act and the now-expired federal assault weapons ban, both of which happened more than 20 years ago during her first years in Washington.

She's faced pressure from immigrant groups that argue she hasn't done enough to fight for comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship. She said immigration reform would be her top priority if she were re-elected.

As she thanked her supporters Tuesday, Feinstein said she was surprised to see how many people had come out.

"How lucky I am to have a constituency like this," she said.