Round one in Silicon Valley slugfest

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The battle to represent Silicon Valley in Congress will enter a new phase on Tuesday as voters decide which candidates will be on the ballot in November.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) is trying to fend off a challenge from patent lawyer Ro Khanna, who is backed by an all-star list of executives from the tech industry.

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The race in the heavily Democratic district pits a veteran lawmaker against a young upstart looking to “disrupt” Washington, though their differences tend to be more in style than ideology.

Khanna argues Honda has not prioritized the issues that matter most to Silicon Valley’s major companies.

“Mike Honda is a nice person and I respect his many years in public service, but he has not shown leadership on speaking out for an Internet Bill of Rights [or] criticizing the NSA’s [National Security Agency] overreach,” Khanna told The Hill.

“I think the Valley is looking for bold leadership,” he added, especially on online rights and “an innovation economy.”

The endorsements page on Khanna’s website contains an entire column of “technology leaders,” including Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.

The San Francisco Chronicle called Khanna an “upgrade” for the district, while the San Jose Mercury News said he was “ready for the Congress of tomorrow.” Honda, the San Jose paper said, was “a politician of the past.”

Honda has tech backers of his own in the district, which contains the headquarters of Apple, Intel and Yahoo.

But in an interview with The Hill this week, Honda stressed the diversity of his district and the many different types of industry that are based there.

“We’re more than just tech,” he said.

“It’s a community that has evolved from agriculture to high tech and people recognize that and they enjoy being very distinctive in the world. ... We recognize that we want people to be able to live, work and raise a family. Whether they’re high tech or not, they should be able to be a member of that community”

Honda has the support of heavyweight liberal groups, including Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club and local chapters of the AFL-CIO. President Obama has endorsed him for reelection, as have House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and California’s two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

Recent polling shows Honda with a double-digit lead over Khanna, but in California’s system of voting, the current distance between the two isn’t likely to matter.

The state operates on an open primary system, which means the top two finishers will go ahead to face each other in November, regardless of party. There are two Republicans also challenging Honda for his seat, but they don’t seem to be within striking distance.

The district is overwhelmingly Democratic and voted for Obama by nearly a 3-1 margin in 2012.

If Honda and Khanna are the top two vote getters on Tuesday, it could pave the way for a bloody and expensive intra-party fight.

“This race will be ugly from June 4 on,” said Larry Gerston, a politics professor at San Jose State University.

For Khanna, it helps to have industry backers with deep pockets.

Employees and affiliates of Google, Facebook and the startup fund Y Combinator have donated generously to his campaign, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That money has helped the challenger outpace Honda’s fundraising until recently, though Khanna also has been burning though cash at a fast rate.

Tech industry backers might be looking for nothing more than to turn over a new leaf, said Larry Gerston, a politics professor at San Jose State University. As elder Democratic statesmen of California politics such as Reps. Henry Waxman and George Miller leave the House, the industry could be sensing a changing of the guard, he said.

“Technology has become the juggernaut not only of California but it’s fair to say pretty substantially across the country, and most if it’s centered right here,” Gerston said. “So yes, those folks would argue that its time to turn the page.”

Not that tech companies would have much to complain about with Honda’s voting record.

Honda recently voted against an NSA reform bill called the USA Freedom Act that major tech firms and civil liberties advocates have said was too watered down to do any good. He’s also worked to put a patent office in Silicon Valley, fought for research and development funding and pushed for immigration reform, a central concern for much of the tech sector.

Voters should bring him back to Washington, Honda said, so that he can finish the job.

“Change really is something about having a history,” he said.

Khanna described himself as “much more pragmatic” and pledged to focus specifically on tech policy, women’s rights at work and ways to create jobs in the new century.

“He may share the same values and he may say ‘Okay, I agree with it’ once we put it forth, but the point is he has refused to lead and hasn’t lead on either the economy or on women in the workplace or on an Internet Bill of Rights,” he said.