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Silicon Valley Rep. Michael Honda challenged by fellow Democrat

Ro Khanna, 36, left, is being backed by some tech industry titans. Michael M. Honda, 72, was first elected to Congress in 2000.

A Silicon Valley congressman who has held elected offices for more than three decades may have counted on a cakewalk to reelection. But his main challenger, a fellow Democrat backed by President Obama’s former campaign advisors, is suddenly making the contest competitive — and one closely watched in Washington.

Rep. Michael M. Honda of San Jose has voted in lockstep with Obama’s agenda and has caused no controversy. But the former Obama advisors have picked his reelection race as one of a handful of high-priority contests across the nation, saying Silicon Valley needs a fresh, more aggressive representative in Congress.

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On Wednesday, Honda’s campaign reported having $375,000 on hand. Challenger Ro Khanna reported nearly $1.8 million. His donors include such tech industry titans as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Napster co-founder Sean Parker.

Khanna’s early haul is “eye-popping,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “The reason why someone like Ro Khanna raises so much money so early is to show his seriousness as a candidate and to give the incumbent something to think about, perhaps gracefully retiring.”

Honda, 72, has shown no such inclination. At a gathering of thousands of liberal activists and bloggers in San Jose in June, he and his supporters were out in force, distributing “Honda” stickers and speaking at event sessions.

“I love you,” Honda told the California caucus meeting at the confab, called Netroots Nation. “I am running for reelection, make no mistake about it.”

The contest between two Democrats is highly unusual. Honda first won his seat in Congress in 2000. In every subsequent race to represent his district — the only Asian-majority district on the mainland United States — he has crushed his opponent. Last year, he won by 48 percentage points.

His supporters include President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Vice President Joe Biden stumped for Honda in Sunnyvale, Calif., in June, a year before the primary and a full 17 months before the general election — a sign that the challenge from Khanna, a 36-year-old a former member of the Obama administration, is being taken seriously.

Honda’s spokesman declined to comment on the fundraising disparity.

“We are excited about our 1,100 donors and what they represent — a strong fundraising foundation for the campaign,” said spokesman Dan Cohen, who noted that half the donors gave less than $100 and could be a source of future fundraising because they have not met the contribution limit.

Some Democrats have criticized Khanna’s campaign for targeting a fellow party member who has toed the Democratic line, rather than using their resources against a Republican or a conservative Democrat.

Jeremy Bird, who was Obama’s 2012 field director and is now an advisor to Khanna, dismissed that as “old-school thinking.”

“Will Ro and Honda vote the same way? Probably,” he said. “What we need is someone there pushing us as a party and a progressive movement to connect the things happening in Silicon Valley to what’s happening in Washington, and I don’t feel we do that right now in the way that we could.”

Bird’s firm, 270 Strategies, is also involved in the “Ready for Hillary” effort urging former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for president. And the group is part of a separate effort to increase Democrats’ prospects in Texas.

Gerston, the political science professor, said despite the power of money and organization, Honda has advantages — notably the backing of labor and a history of being underestimated. “I would imagine he is taking this very seriously, as an incumbent should,” he added.

In June, during Biden’s visit, Honda acknowledged his straits. “I’m always concerned. Anybody that says they’re not concerned is dropping their guard,” he said.

A fighter who lets down his guard gets “whacked,” Honda said. “We’re not going to get whacked.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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