Once she expected it, even sought it out. Two other times, it may have come as a surprise.
The senator has long had an uneasy relationship with activists at the core of the California Democratic Party, who have chaffed at her centrist views on some issues, but credited her for leadership on liberal approaches to other matters.
Feinstein has rarely faced much of a re-election threat, but this year she has one — not from Republicans but from within her own party. Her challenge from California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León is a microcosm of the national split in the Democratic Party between longtime establishment deal-makers and a younger generation of aggressive progressives.
Feinstein usually had the luxury of looking beyond the liberal-leaning Democratic base that dominated primary elections and playing to the broader electorate.
This dynamic crystallized in 1990 when she emphasized her support for the death penalty during a speech at the state Democratic convention. It seemed calculated to elicit boos from the liberal crowd — and her campaign used a video clip of that moment in a television ad.
At the time, she was running for governor and won the primary handily but in November lost to another centrist, Republican Pete Wilson. She won a U.S. Senate seat two years later and never looked back.
Last April, she didn’t seem intent on antagonizing a town-hall-meeting crowd by saying she did not favor a single-payer health care system, but the comment triggered boos in her hometown of San Francisco.
In August, she faced some jeers from a Commonwealth Club audience, again in San Francisco, when she said this about Donald Trump: "I just hope he has the ability to learn and to change, and if he does, he can be a good president.”
That drew a rebuke from de León, among others, and she sought to clarify her remarks, noting that she has opposed Trump on several fronts.
Feinstein is on a rocky election road, the likes of which she hasn’t traveled in a generation.
Still, at 84, she’s an icon among Democrats, including many of those who think it may be time for her to go. She’s a national figure with gravitas and policy expertise on intelligence and national security issues few can match.
Even in this political climate, she can burnish liberal bonafides.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has reignited widespread calls for gun control — Feinstein’s signature issue.
Months before the tragedy, she introduced legislation to revive her nationwide assault weapons ban, which she got passed in 1994 but Congress let expire 10 years later. She has pursued numerous other gun control bills.
In October, Feinstein sponsored legislation to outlaw the infamous “bump stocks,” which can turn semi-automatic guns, essentially, into automatic weapons. The device was used by the gunman in Las Vegas who just days earlier killed 58 people at a country music concert. She had introduced a version of that bill after 20 children and six adults were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
Feinstein dismissed Trump’s recent call for his administration to ban them. She said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had said repeatedly it lacked the authority to do that and making such an attempt now invited lawsuits and legal delays — which would allow continued sale of bump stocks.
“Words are one thing, Mr. President, but we need meaningful action,” she said in a statement. “If you want these devices off the street, call congressional Republicans and tell them to stop blocking our bill.”
It’s that kind of talk, along with underscoring her leadership on gun control, that could soften some intraparty opposition.
“That’s the territory on which she’s a liberal champion,” said Thad Kousser,a political science professor at UC San Diego.
“...It gives her the chance to make her case.”
At stake this weekend is the party’s endorsement. It would be a setback for Feinstein if she doesn’t get it, but not a complete surprise. An endorsement brings with it institutional party backing and money. If no candidate gets 60 percent of the delegates’ votes, the party does not endorse.
De León, 51, has picked up momentum with endorsements from big unions and influential lawmakers, including Senate president-elect Toni Atkins of San Diego. But the notion that he’s an insurgent progressive candidate is tempered by his years as part of Sacramento’s ruling Democratic establishment. Not only that, but there’s a couple of little-known progressive candidates — Alison Hartson and Pat Harris — running to his left.
Feinstein has a lot more money in her campaign account — including an infusion of millions from her own pocket — and endorsements across the Democratic political spectrum, including one from fellow California Sen. Kamala Harris, a favorite of progressives.
Feinstein led de León by nearly 30 points in a poll released two weeks ago by the Public Policy Institute of California.
She likely will be aided by California’s primary system, where the two candidates with the most votes advance to November, regardless of party affiliation. She’s attracted independents and Republicans in the past, two groups that might be even more inclined to vote Democratic in this primary. No big-name Republican has entered the race.
Feinstein and de León seem destined to face off again in the fall, as Democrats Harris and then-Rep. Loretta Sanchez did in 2016. But that doesn’t mean the primary is a mere warm up.
“Sen. Feinstein would be so politically damaged if she finished in second place in the primary,” Kousser said. “She needs to win this in June.”
Her more aggressive posture toward Trump can only help with core Democrats.
Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, caused an uproar among Republicans last month when she released the full transcript of the panel’s interview with a principal of GPS Fusion, the firm that researched potential ties between Trump and Russia.
The tweeter-in-chief lashed out at “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein.” Under normal circumstances, nobody would want to be called that. But these are unique times.
Becoming a Trump Twitter target is prized currency among Democrats. Getting a nickname — think Sen. Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren — may be the gold standard.
De León doesn’t have one of those.