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Mike Honda Locks Up Establishment Support, But Challenger Has Ear of the Silicon Valley Elite

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, May 14 2013

Some of Silicon Valley's most influential business people will hold a fundraiser in San Francisco this Thursday for Ro Khanna, the 36-year-old lawyer who's challenging 71-year-old California Democrat Mike Honda for his 17th Congressional District seat.

The names at the top of the invite: Ron Conway and Sean Parker. They're apparently forming a committee to help Khanna build his campaign. The other bold-face names who are listed as part of the 'committee in formation' include Salesforce.com's Founder and CEO Marc Benioff, Benchmark Capital General Partners' Matt Cohler and Peter Fenton, tech entrepreneur Shawn Fanning, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, her big data venture investor husband Zach Bogue, and Conway's SV Angel colleague, Founder and Managing Partner David Lee.

Khanna is a Silicon Valley lawyer and former assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Commerce, and he's positioning himself as a next-generation Democrat pitting himself against the old guard.

Scott Herhold, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote in February that "Honda is a genuinely nice man. He is, literally, a guy with whom you'd want to have a beer or visit a karaoke," but that "Khanna, however, is arguably the better fit for the thinking of Silicon Valley. Where Honda wants to boost tax rates on high earners and treat capital gains as ordinary income -- which would mean a tax increase for many tech workers -- Khanna does not."

Honda's campaign team has been busy locking up the endorsements from the political establishment. In addition to endorsements from President Obama himself, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and a slew of other Democrats, Honda's team publicized a bipartisan endorsement at the beginning of the month from former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and former Congressman Joseph Cao, a Republican who represented Louisiana's Second District between 2009 and 2011. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom endorsed Khanna late last month.

The challenge from Khanna isn't unexpected. Political scientists had predicted in 2010 that redrawn California congressional districts and a change to the election process would make challenges to incumbent Democrats more attractive to more 'moderate' members of their own party.

CA 17 before redistricting Map by Govtrack, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

California's districts were redrawn by an independent commission in 2011. The lines were drawn after the 2010 census, which showed that the population had grown faster inland than it had on the coastline. As a result, CA-17 has now shifted from encompassing much of the coastline (see map above) to encompassing an area that people traditionally think of as Silicon Valley (see map below:) Fremont, Newark, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Campbell, Santa Clara, North San Jose, and Milpitas. As Khanna's Web site points out itself, "the district is the home for Tesla Motors, Apple Inc, Intel Corp., Yahoo, and eBay."

CA 17 after redistricting. Map by Govtrack, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau

The other change that favors Khanna is that California voters can now vote for whomever they want in open primaries. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then proceed onto the general election. Political scientists say that this change favors Democrats who may be more centrist than hard-line incumbents of either party. Nevertheless, Honda has historically enjoyed a lot of support among the Democratic base, and Khanna's candidacy has stirred controversy among local Democratic activists.