The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Silicon Valley tech execs backed a candidate for Congress. And he lost.

Democratic challenger Ro Khanna, left, and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) shake hands after their general election debate at KNTV NBC 11, in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. (AP Photo// Bay Area News Group, John Green)

In May of last year, a group of powerful tech executives gathered for a $2,600-a-head fundraiser in San Francisco to support a former Obama administration official they hoped would unseat Rep. Mike Honda, the Democratic congressman who had represented Silicon Valley since 2000.

"We feel for a long time that Silicon Valley just hasn't been properly represented at a federal level," Napster co-founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker, a co-host of the event, told the roughly 100 people in attendance, according to a video of the event posted by the San Francisco Chronicle. "We haven't had the young, dynamic, hard-driving candidate that really understands the unique issues facing Silicon Valley right now at a moment in time when there actually are a series of important political milestones and political turning points in front of us."

But Parker and his other tech industry co-hosts -- who reportedly included Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and her venture capitalist husband, Zach Bogue; CEO Marc Benioff; and angel investor Ron Conway -- found their candidate in 38-year-old Ro Khanna, a former Obama administration trade representative and patent lawyer then mounting a primary challenge against Honda, 73.

In a race decided Friday, Honda won reelection, defeating his fellow Democrat by about 4,000 votes. Khanna conceded the race late Friday after the Associated Press called it for Honda. The outcome was another blow to the tech community's efforts to grow its political clout -- this time close to home.

In the early days of the campaign, Khanna raised more money than Honda -- bringing in high-dollar donations from other big tech names like Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg. But Khanna's war chest dwindled by October and the tech community's support was not enough to defeat Honda in a race where more than $7 million dollars was spent.

"To a certain extent, we're coming to a realization of our own power and capability, not just as innovators and technology pioneers, but also in a political sense," Parker said during last year's fundraiser.

But in declaring victory Friday, Honda did not mince words about how big money donors were defeated in his campaign. "Together, we sent a message that this election could not be bought by Super PACs and right-wing millionaires and billionaires. My opponent’s donors wasted more than $5 million, through his campaign and Super PAC, to try to replace my progressive voice with someone who would do their bidding," he said in written remarks as prepared for delivery. "And although we were outspent 2:1, they were no match for the more than 10,000 people who funded my campaign."

Big tech companies have made many attempts to influence Washington in recent years, but many have fallen flat., a group started by Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to lobby on behalf of a version of immigration reform favored by tech companies, has made little progress since its launch in April of last year -- but its tactics have drawn plenty of criticism without much result. Reform of National Security Agency surveillance policies has also stalled, despite the support of tech giants who view the programs as a public relations nightmare and a potential threat to the burgeoning cloud computing industry.

And in Silicon Valley, there's also simmering resentment of some of tech's biggest names: Google buses have drawn protests as a symbol of the economic divide created by the surge of new technology money, making it hard for longtime residents to afford to stay in their homes.

That divide may have played a role in Khanna's defeat. While observers say there was little difference between the tech-related policy platforms of both candidates, Khanna was considered more fiscally conservative and garnered support from pro-business interest groups such as the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

He also proudly declared himself a "tech groupie," and said he was unaware of the existence of one of the largest homeless encampments in the country within the district.  Honda, on the other hand, appealed to more traditionally liberal groups such as labor unions by focusing on issues with more direct impact on voters living on lower incomes.

"Honda is a person who is thinking about much more than just the technology question," said San Jose State University political science professor emeritus Larry Gersten. "He represents those who aren't represented -- the poor, immigrants -- and these are a sizable portion of this district, but they're out of the limelight."

Khanna started his congressional bid in 2011, when people thought he would run for the 15th District seat of Rep. Pete Stark (D), who was expected to retire. But Stark didn't retire, and Khanna stayed out, only to see Stark lose to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell in 2012. Under California's top-two primary system, all candidates run in a combined primary, with the top two vote getters facing off in the general elections.

That's how Khanna wound up facing Honda in the general election. Khanna spent much of his cash reserves to knock out two Republican competitors in the June primary, but still came in more than 20 points behind the incumbent congressman.

Khanna had hired staffers from President Obama's 2008 campaign to boost his chances, and garnered major newspaper editorial board endorsements including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. But the former Obama administration official didn't get support from the White House. Instead, first lady Michelle Obama recorded a robocall message in support of Honda during the final days of the campaign.

But even if some powerful tech executives didn't get their choice of congressmen to represent Silicon Valley, they did flex their muscles. "Khanna used most of his money early to gain branding and name recognition and it worked," Gersten said.

Khanna went from roughly 2 percent name recognition a year and half ago, then closed in to around 20 points in June and created a nail biter for the Honda campaign by Election Day, Gersten said.