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Round 4 coming up: Honda vs. Khanna

A freeway sign to a Silicon Valley turnoff. (Photo illustration: boscorelli, via Shutterstock)

California’s top-two primary election saw ballots littered with Democratic incumbents facing Democratic challengers.

In congressional races, there were 14 Democratic incumbents confronting fellow Democrats, not including the 12 races with multiple Democrats running for the same open or Republican seat. In the state Legislature, 10 incumbent Democrats faced challengers from their own parties.

And, as in 2014, they’ll face each other yet again in the fall runoff.

Much of that competition comes from relatively unestablished candidates: candidates who have little funding or name recognition.

But while many of these challengers are unknown, for voters in California’s 17th Congressional District, the Democratic match-up is all too familiar.

The Silicon Valley is gearing up for yet another race between incumbent Congressman Mike Honda and challenger Ro Khanna, who nearly took the seat from Honda in the 2014 midterms. That year, they faced each other in the primary and, again, in the general election — which Honda won.

This time around, Khanna maintained a scant 177-vote lead over Honda out of more than 67,000 ballots cast. And, as in 2014, they’ll face each other yet again in the November runoff.

“Ro Khanna is not your average candidate,” veteran political consultant Andrew Acosta said. “He’s well-positioned and has worked in the Obama administration.”

Khanna, who served from 2009 to 2011 as the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Commerce, represents some of the stiffest competition faced by any incumbent Democrat in California.

Since June 2015, Honda has been embroiled in an ethics probe in which his congressional staff was accused of mixing official state business with campaign work.

When they faced off two years ago,  Honda defeated Khanna handily in the primary and held onto his seat with a narrow four-point win in the general race that fall.

But this year, Khanna edged Honda in Tuesday’s primary, on Tuesday. The razor-thin margin — Khanna’s 38.6 percent to Honda’s 37.8 percent — reflects changes in the district that have helped Khanna over the past two years.

The biggest issue: A  spate of recent allegations of unethical behavior.

Since June 2015, Honda has been embroiled in an ethics probe in which his congressional staff was accused of mixing official business with campaign work. His office has also been accused of offering preferential access to high-volume donors.

While the investigation is not yet complete, Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the Honda campaign, said that the allegations were “administrative in nature,” and as a response to them, Honda has created the “strongest firewall in congress” between his campaign and congressional staff.

Regardless of the investigation’s outcome, however, the probe is to Khanna’s advantage. Honda lost the endorsement of President Obama, which he had in 2014, and naturally, the Khanna campaign isn’t keen to let the district forget about the scandal.

“I’m not sure why a donor would give to Mike Honda unless, of course, they want to contribute to a legal defense fund,” Khanna spokesperson Hari Sevugan said in the post-race statement.

Khanna has the support of many big names in Silicon Valley, for example venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

Khanna has painted Honda as out of touch and bought off by special interests, telling Capitol Weekly that he has pledged since 2014 not to take money from lobbyists or PACs.

But that doesn’t mean that his campaign coffers are empty — far from it: By June 7, Khanna had raised over $2.5 million for his campaign. Honda had just under $2 million.

Honda, noting Khanna’s fund-raising prowess, contends Khanna is a tool of Silicon Valley’s wealthy interests.

“At the end of the day, Ro Khanna associates himself with individuals with deep pockets,” Patel said.

It’s widely known that Khanna has the support of many big names in Silicon Valley, for example venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. While Khosla’s name has not yet appeared in Khanna’s Federal Elections Committee contributions this year, just days before the 2014 general election, the billionaire donated $7,000 to a committee that campaigned for Khanna and against Honda.

Khanna said that he only receives donations meeting the maximum $2,700 allowed in a primary campaign, which the FEC database confirmed.

Khanna had received 788 of those donations meeting the $2,700 limit, many from the same donors on different occasions. Honda received just 150 donations meeting that maximum amount for the primary, but Honda also has received nearly a quarter of his funding from campaign committees, including PACs.

Since 2011, the state has held open top-two primaries, meaning that the top two vote-getters in any primary election, regardless of party, advance to a runoff in the general.

In this Dem-on-Dem race, campaign contributions and ethics have been more prominent than policy issues, particularly for Khanna as he seeks to sow doubt among Honda’s constituents.

Honda counters by trying to paint Khanna as too conservative for the Bay Area district.“[Khanna] spent the better part of 2014 calling Congressman Honda too liberal, too progressive, and too Democratic,” Patel said. He added that Khanna has flip-flopped on a number of issues and that without experience in elected office, it’s hard to say what Khanna’s positions are.

Khanna defended his record, saying his involvement on local issues is indicative of his progressive positions. He cited as examples his public statements on the conflict between the NFL and a youth soccer league in Santa Clara, over access to fields during the Super Bowl, and the accountability of the Lehigh Southwest Cement Facility to the citizens of Cupertino.

The 17th Congressional District is just one of many Democrat-dominated races this year. Since 2011, the state has held open top-two primaries, meaning that the top two vote-getters in any primary election, regardless of party, advance to a runoff in the general.

“There’s quite a few [Democrat versus Democrat races],” Acosta said. “I’m not sure how many of them are as real as Ro Khanna against [Congressman] Mike Honda.”

With two years since his last race to work on fundraising and name recognition in the district, Khanna hopes this year is the real deal.

“I think [name recognition] is really why we lost last time,” he said.

If the primary is any indicator, this will be Khanna’s best shot at the seat yet.

In his analysis of the race, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd described the race succinctly: “It’ll likely be which Democrat best appeals to frustrated Republicans.”


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