Silicon Valley shootout down to the wire

Silicon Valley shootout down to the wire
© Courtesy photo/Greg Nash

An aggressive campaign by Silicon Valley executives to replace their longtime representative in Congress is going down to the wire.

Executives from companies such as Google, Yahoo and Intel have spent heavily to help the candidacy of Democrat Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Khanna: I 'didn't appreciate' Castro's attack on Biden Overwhelming majority of voters want lawmakers to work with other party MORE, a former Commerce Department official who is trying to deny an eighth term to Rep. Mike HondaMichael (Mike) Makoto HondaYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Ex-congressman launching PAC to defend Dem seats in 2020 Silicon Valley lawmaker backs Apple in terror case MORE (D-Calif.).  

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“I think it’s a symbolic race in lots of ways,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University who has watched the race closely.

Khanna and Honda are separated by three and a half decades in age in the only majority Asian-American congressional district in the contiguous 48 states.

Honda has backing from the leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Obama, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and California’s Democratic senators. Many labor, environmental and liberal groups are also backing his reelection bid.

Khanna, meanwhile, has the support of dozens of influential tech industry icons including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, in addition to editorial boards of the area’s major area newspapers.

The contest has tightened in the home stretch, which could point to a shift in momentum in favor of Khanna.

An independent CBS poll last week found the two in a dead heat, with Honda winning the support of 37 percent of registered voters and Khanna with 35 percent, a difference within the poll’s margin of error of 4 percentage points.

That’s a drastic change from the June primary, when Honda easily cruised to victory 20 points ahead of his challenger.

The race has become one of the most expensive House contests in the country, with both sides spending millions to split the votes in the overwhelmingly Democratic district that serves as home base for the tech sector.

Though he has pledged not to take any money from political action committees, Khanna has attracted more than $350,000 in contributions from people in the computer and Internet industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — more than any other House candidate.

Google employees alone have given his campaign more than $82,000.

Khanna, who is 38, frames his differences with Honda as more on style than on substance, and he has tried to portray the incumbent as part of a bygone era.

In the race’s one and only debate earlier this month, both candidates stressed the need for immigration reform and a rollback of the country’s surveillance programs — high priorities for the tech sector and many Democrats.

But Khanna criticized Honda, 73, for not playing a larger role on the policy issues most affecting the region and accused him of refusing to reach across the aisle to work more proactively with Republicans, who are expected to maintain control of the House after November.

Khanna campaign spokesman Tyler Law said the race came down to “ineffective and absent versus effective and engaged.”

“It doesn’t matter if you have seniority if you’ve been unable to deliver,” Law said, while also claiming Honda had been ignoring his district. “In Silicon Valley, where we have some of the hardest working, most entrepreneurial people, saying that you cast votes the right way most of the time just isn’t going to cut it.”

Honda, in turn, has accused Khanna of trying to woo Republicans in the district, and his campaign has called him “a Democrat in name only.”

“It’s clear that this race has tightened, and the reason for that is clear as well: my opponent’s campaign and super-PAC have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking me and distorting my record,” Honda said in a statement to The Hill.

A super-PAC formed by a Khanna donor, Californians for Innovation, has spent nearly half a million dollars on the race since it was launched in August. The Khanna campaign denies any involvement with the group.

“I’m confident that in this final week, our message of what I’ve been able to deliver for the district ... combined with pointing out who is funding my opponent’s efforts, will prevail,” Honda added, pointing to his efforts to send federal money to local schools and transit lines.

Though the race involves two Democrats, the outcome on Tuesday could come down to Republicans and independents.

This is only the second election since California instituted its “jungle” primary system that put both Khanna and Honda on the ballot. 

Without a presidential candidate, major competitive statewide race or high-profile initiative on the ballot, Democratic turnout will likely be low, California Democratic strategist Garry South predicted.

“The [outcome] in these top-two runoffs between two Democrats in a seat like this would tend to come down to who does a better job reaching out to Republicans and independents,” he said.

“It’s not that Mike Honda doesn’t know he has to do that. The question is can these older warhorses like [former Rep. Pete] Stark [D-Calif.] and Honda, can they recalibrate how to do a general election campaign against a fellow Democrat and really put their heart and their head in it,” he said, referring to a 40-year veteran of the House who was defeated by fellow Democrat Rep. Eric Swalwell in 2012.

“The jury is still out as to whether Honda has been able to do this.”