Former Obama administration trade official Ro Khanna had barely won the right Tuesday night to challenge fellow Democrat Rep. Mike Honda in the South Bay congressional district in the November general election when national liberal-leaning groups started attacking.
Khanna was a “Republican-lite” candidate who is expected to begin “making the same right-wing pitch to voters that he used to ‘win’ the support of fringe-right millionaires and billionaires,” wrote Democracy for America, a left-leaning political action committee founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean.
“Honda beat his corporate Democrat challenger” who was a “primary opponent from the right,” wrote the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a fundraising email to supporters Wednesday.
The quick defense of Honda by liberal groups, even after he easily won the primary race for the 17th congressional district Tuesday night 49 percent to 27 percent over Khanna, foreshadows what’s expected to be one of the ugliest congressional races playing out across the country this fall.
The race looks to be an interesting test of whether a candidate with a lot of money, the support of a slew of tech titans, and a tech-oriented campaign structure — including some of the team behind President Obama’s re-election campaign — can overtake a popular incumbent who enjoys the backing of the Democratic establishment, most notably labor unions.
With the two men sharing many of the same policy positions, the race is likely to focus on wedge issues such as the income inequality problems that have plagued the Bay area.
“Our opponent is someone who talks a lot about having the support of a lot of CEOs and executives of the high-tech industry. He has a lot of support by the one percent,” said Vivek Kembaiyan, Rep. Honda’s communications director, in a call with reporters Wednesday.
Honda has become part of the one percent thanks to “voting repeatedly to raise his own pay, collecting multiple public pensions on top of his hefty salary and taking an excessive amount of special interest-funded trips to lavish destinations around the globe,” countered Tyler Law, a Khanna campaign spokesman. “If voters want a congressman who understands the pressures facing working families today, they ought to vote for Ro Khanna who’s still paying off his student loans.”
Intraparty fighting is always discouraged by the leadership of political parties because they’d much rather spend their time and money bashing the other party’s candidate.
But they may have no choice in the closely watched Bay Area race, which pits tech industry favorite Khanna against Honda, a 14-year veteran favored by labor unions and the Democratic establishment (including Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi). California’s new primary system allows the two top primary candidates to advance to the general election, which has set up this Democrat-on-Democrat cage match.
For tech industry executives, the race represents a test of whether they’re able to exert their influence in elections. That might be a good message to send to a Congress which has dealt Silicon Valley several defeats recently, most notably a weakened NSA reform bill and the near-death status of a patent troll bill.
Honda appears to be in a relatively good position given his 22 percentage point victory over Khanna yesterday and the fact that incumbents rarely lose races. About 90 percent won their races in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But Honda’s jovial image could take a hit if he has to run negative ads against the tech-supported upstart, who won endorsements from the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle.
A Khanna campaign memo released Wednesday complained that Honda “took the unprecedented step of bailing on his longstanding, nice-guy image and going negative” with several postcard mailers to potential primary voters in the district.
Another problem for the incumbent: Khanna has already proven his ability to raise money from deep-pocket tech executives, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg ($1,000) and Path co-founder Dave Morin ($2,600) and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ($2,600), federal records show. He has raised more than $2.6 million so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, including $332,000 from donors in the financial industry sector and $246,000 from tech donors.
Honda is no slouch at fundraising either, although he’s gotten it from less tech and financial industry sources. He has raised slightly less money this year – around $2 million – but he has also spent significantly less than Khanna, who is burning through cash almost as quickly as he’s raising it. Honda had spent about $1.1 million by mid-May, federal records show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.