Former Obama aide defies Democrats to challenge Rep. Honda in Calif

A former Obama administration official is launching a primary bid against Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), defying party leaders from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the president himself.

Ro Khanna, a former Commerce Department appointee, announced Tuesday morning that he’d challenge Honda. 

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Honda has already been endorsed by President Obama, Pelosi, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Those endorsements were meant to scare off Khanna. 

The 36-year-old challenger faces a tough battle in the Silicon Valley district. Honda, 71, has been in Congress for more than a dozen years, has close ties with the Asian-American and tech communities and with Democratic leaders, and was a longtime vice chairman of the powerful Democratic National Committee. Honda’s campaign recently released a poll showing him leading Khanna 57 percent to 5 percent.

One thing going for the underdog: While Obama has endorsed Honda, many top Obama campaign staffers are working for Khanna. They include Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 national field director; Steve Spinner, a top Obama campaign fundraiser who is chairing Khanna’s campaign; and Larry Grisolano, who ran Obama’s paid media efforts in both 2008 and 2012.

Khanna also has more than $1 million in the bank already, after deciding not to run for Congress in 2012, much of it from the Indian-American community. Honda has $80,000 cash on hand, giving the challenger an unusual financial edge.

While Khanna never said what race he was looking at in 2012, most believe he was looking at challenging former Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), who had a testy relationship with many other Democrats. Pelosi even attended a Khanna fundraiser before he decided not to run. 

Stark was defeated by another young Democrat last election, leaving no obvious seats for Khanna to run for this election. This is likely why he’s taking on Honda.

In an interview with The Hill, Khanna downplayed any tension with party leaders and said the race was about his ideas rather than trying to defeat Honda.

“I have respect for Mike Honda’s many years of service. The race is not against a particular person — that’s the old way of looking for things in Washington. I’m running because I believe I have ideas and solutions that will help the country and help Silicon Valley and help job growth,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Political endorsements aren’t going to determine the outcome of this race. What’s going to matter is whose ideas are better suited to match the needs of people in the district.”

Khanna said he wanted to push for more technological innovation in government and a focus on 21st century education, and promised a grassroots campaign focused on new ways of communicating, drawing a parallel to the president.

“Ultimately my belief is in grassroots campaigning and community organizing,” he said. “The folks from the Obama campaign world share that fundamental commitment to community organizing and grassroots politics.”

Honda’s campaign emphasizes the congressman’s work on education and technology issues. In a statement, he highlighted Obama’s support.

“The beauty of a free country is that anyone has the right to run,” Honda said. “I’ve taken every one of my campaigns seriously and this will be no different. I’m grateful for the early support I’ve received, from President Obama to local leaders across the district, and I’m looking forward to our strongest campaign yet in 2014.”

Bird, who ran Obama’s cutting-edge get-out-the-vote operation, said he was drawn to Khanna’s campaign because of his focus on new ideas and technologies, and said Obama’s endorsement of Honda didn’t affect how he felt about the race.

“I worked for the president for six years. I have the utmost respect for him — we learned so much over the last six years. But in this one, though, this is going to be a very competitive, well-run race, and I don’t see any problem working for someone who shares all my values,” he said. “For me it’s about Ro … he’s young, energetic and understands the tech industry.”

Outside endorsements haven’t had a big impact on other California races, however: Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) defeated fellow Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) in a combined district last year despite support for Berman from nearly every member of the Democratic establishment. But Sherman represented much more of the district, giving him an advantage Khanna won’t have.

Khanna could also be buoyed by California’s relatively new “jungle primary” system, in which the top two vote-getters make it to the general election no matter what party they belong to. He made a point to emphasize his bipartisan appeal in his campaign’s introductory video, criticizing “politicians who march with their party rather than think for themselves.”

The race could also be a test of the influence of outside groups and of the power of different Asian-American communities. The district is heavily Asian-American, with large populations of both East Asian and Indian-American voters.

This isn’t the first time Khanna has taken on an entrenched congressman. In 2004, he ran against the late Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), attacking him for his support for the Iraq war. Lantos won in a landslide.