Feinstein's future - not so vulnerable
For a misleading moment early this fall, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein - for 20 years one of California's most formidable political figures - looked vulnerable in next year's election.
First, the usually reliable Field Poll showed the three-term Democrat with only a 43 percent approval rating. About 39 percent of voters disapproved of her performance, while 18 percent were undecided.
Then her campaign treasurer was accused by the U.S. Justice Department of diverting more than $670,000 from the funds of a Southern California assemblyman into her personal accounts. 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.
But all Feinstein had to do to quiet the furor over her possible political demise was write a check. So she did, plunking $5 million of her own cash into her campaign.
That, 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 sign, and then sued the bank for a refund of any money lost.
Now, once her campaign accounts become completely available, she's likely to have at least $8 million on hand heading into the election year. Because her own estimated net worth tops $45 million and husband Richard Blum has an estimated $400 million, potential opponents know she can write other big checks anytime she likes.
Conservative activist and presidential-son Michael Reagan, a longtime talk show host, knows this.
For weeks there were rumors he would contest Feinstein. But a day after Feinstein wrote her check, Reagan told a reporter, "I'm not crazy enough to run."
Feinstein, who won with 59.5 percent of the vote in 2006, has clearly learned a key political lesson: Sock away big money early and you'll decrease the chance of significant opposition. That worked well in her last election when her Republican opponent was the obscure former state Sen. Dick Mountjoy, a fringe candidate at best.
She also knows that incumbents will suffer poor ratings when the job approval rating for Congress is 15 percent or less. But as former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell of Maine once said of another incumbent's low numbers, "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.
Her marginal nature was revealed when a federal district judge 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.