Top Obama campaign aides join primary bid against Democratic incumbent Mike Honda

April 4, 2013

Top officials from President Obama’s 2012 campaign team have joined a primary bid against an incumbent Democratic congressman with strong labor backing and an endorsement from Obama himself.

Rep. Michael M. Honda, in his seventh term representing a district in the southern San Francisco Bay area of California, faces the challenge from Ro Khanna, a former Commerce Department official who has written a book about renewing American manufacturing.

The district, covering the north side of San Jose and the south side of Fremont, is home to some of America’s biggest tech giants, including Apple, Yahoo and Cisco.

Khanna says he hopes to bring the collaborative culture at those companies to Congress. “There are a lot of people in Silicon Valley who have innovative, out-of-the-box ideas that will really transcend partisanship,” he said. “I want to be an advocate for those ideas.”

Khanna, a Yale Law School graduate who left the government in 2011, has tried before for a seat in Congress, challenging former representative Tom Lantos (D) in 2004 and briefly weighing a 2012 bid in a reconfigured districts but deferring to incumbent Rep. Pete Stark (D), who then lost to another challenger. For the latter race, Khanna raised $1.2 million, most of which still sits in his campaign account. Honda, meanwhile, has next to no money on hand.

Khanna’s stellar fundraising record and his all-star campaign team mean the race in the solidly Democratic district is likely to be competitive. Khanna’s chances get another boost from California’s top-two primary system, in which the top two vote getters of any party advance to the general election. That means that Khanna doesn’t need to beat Honda in a low-turnout, Democrat-only contest.

The Honda campaign released a poll showing the incumbent getting 57 percent of the vote in a hypothetical matchup in the district, which is more than 50 percent Asian. Khanna drew only 7 percent, hardly surprising for someone who is largely unknown.

As an incumbent, Honda will have the party establishment behind him. He has already picked up endorsements from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the House minority leader, and the state’s two senators, in addition to Obama.

“The president has supported one and only one person in this campaign, and that’s Mike Honda,” Honda campaign spokesman Dan Cohen said.

That hasn’t stopped some of Obama’s highest campaign aides from signing up with Khanna. They include Larry Grisolano, one of the top media strategists from the president’s 2012 effort, and Jeremy Bird, the national field director, and half a dozen other Obama campaign alumni.

Also on board with Khanna is Steve Spinner, a former Obama Energy Department official and major fundraiser who was a central player in the federal loan guarantee for Solyndra, the solar company that late went bankrupt.

Bird said he joined Khanna because of the importance of the district and Khanna’s ideas to promote economic growth. Together, they plan to run a campaign in the mode of Obama’s 2012 effort, registering new voters and using technology to empower supporters.

“What happens out there really matters for the rest of the country,” Bird said. “Ro is certainly young and dynamic. I think he’s ideally suited to represent that young, cutting-edge community in Silicon Valley.”

The race sets up a battle between that youthful, techy part of the Democratic Party and the old guard that has been behind Honda for more than a decade.

The difference on substance might be less than it appears, however. In an interview, Khanna repeatedly mentioned his goal to repatriate foreign income earned by American corporations, which sits in bank accounts overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. Honda also backs that and has even co-sponsored legislation to make it happen.

As an example of his ideas, Khanna said he favors mandatory computer programming classes for elementary school students. The Honda campaign also points to the incumbent’s record on science and technology education, which he has funded through his post on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Karen White, national political director for the National Education Association, said Honda was the first congressman endorsed by the teachers union this year.

“Congressman Honda is a huge advocate for students and educators,” White said. “I wish we had more Mike Hondas in Congress.”

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