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November intraparty showdown could unseat longtime Silicon Valley congressman Mike Honda

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For months, Ro Khanna had one goal in his primary race against eight-term incumbent Rep. Mike Honda: lose by 10 points. If he could come within that margin, the Fremont Democrat reasoned, he stood a good chance of overtaking Honda to win the Silicon Valley seat in November.

But when election night returns showed the two neck and neck, and later put Khanna ahead, he didn’t believe it.

“Call the guy back,” he told his wife when she relayed the early results. “I don’t think that could be possible.”

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In the end, Khanna, 39, received 2,200 votes more than Honda.

The results could mark a turning point in the 75-year-old congressman’s career: After more than 35 years as an elected official and 16 years as a congressman, Honda has earned a reputation as one of the liberal stalwarts of Congress, with high rankings from labor, civil rights and environmental groups. But shifting demographics in the district and an ongoing ethics probe could threaten Honda’s success in the race.

“I wouldn’t call it losing,” Honda said in a recent interview. “Let’s call it moving on to the general election.”

Factors that may contribute to Honda’s potential vulnerability have been developing for years. Redistricting in 2012 changed the demographics of Honda’s constituency — more Indian Americans live in his district than any other in the nation — and wrapped in cities that are home to leaders of the Bay Area tech boom. The growing political muscle of tech executives such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai — both of whom have thrown their weight behind Khanna — and the expanded influence of Indian Americans in the district may have paved the way for a candidate like Khanna, a former appointee of President Obama, to succeed.

Honda says his strategy all along has been to store up resources for what’s sure to be a hard-fought general election against an opponent who has been known to out-raise him.

Still, the June election marked a big reversal from the 2014 primary, when Honda, 75, handily defeated his upstart challenger by more than 20 points. Khanna came within striking distance of Honda that November, losing by just three points.

A lot has changed since then. Heading into the primary, Khanna had a more than 2-1 fundraising advantage. Honda had lost a couple of key endorsements, most notably from President Obama, and has been dogged by an ongoing investigation into whether he inappropriately used official resources and staff to benefit his campaign.

All this has made Khanna quite confident about his chances when the two Democrats face off in November, thanks to California’s top-two primary.

“We will win by at least 10 points,” Khanna predicted recently. “Honestly, there’s just no path for Mike Honda at this point.”

But longtime political observers in Silicon Valley say it would be a mistake to count Honda down and out just yet.

“Few people historically have had the deep reverence in their quiver that Mike Honda’s had,” said Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University.

Honda, a former high school science teacher who spent part of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp, is well-liked and has a long-standing reputation as a progressive advocate for immigrants, the poor and seniors, Gerston said.

Those groups could come out in full force as the general election nears.

Honda already has the backing of the California Democratic Party and more than a third of the California congressional delegation, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). His campaign has been funded largely by retirees and union and corporate PACs.

Khanna’s donors, on the other hand, comprise a who’s who of Silicon Valley executives, including Sandberg, Pichai and former Facebook president Sean Parker. Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, a self-described libertarian who addressed the Republican National Convention last month in endorsing Trump, is also a Khanna supporter, a fact the Honda campaign happily seized upon. Khanna, whose parents emigrated from India, has also had success fundraising within the district’s sizable Indian American community.

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Khanna seems to have learned his lesson from last cycle, when he blew through the bulk of his money before the primary, launching television ads early on and running out of steam closer to November.

According to the latest numbers released by his campaign, Honda has raised a total of $2.2 million, with almost $1 million cash on hand. Khanna’s campaign said it has raised a total of $2.9 million, with $1.4 million banked.

In the 17th Congressional District, where the median household income tops $103,000 and Republicans have a 44%-19% disadvantage in voter registration, Khanna and Honda have largely been left to claim loyalties from different types of Democrats.

It’s a relatively new district to Honda, who previously represented the 15th Congressional District that stretched south into the more rural community of Gilroy. District lines were shifted north in 2012 and now include the Alameda County cities of Fremont and Newark as well as Cupertino and Sunnyvale, wealthy suburbs that are ground zero for Silicon Valley’s so-called innovation class.

Voters in that region tend to be more conservative on economics and progressive on social issues, according to Bruce Cain, a politics professor at Stanford University.

“It’s an area that is not traditionally liberal in the way the Democratic Party in California has been,” Cain said, with a stronger faith in private investment and technology.

Those differences were reflected in the June primary results, according to a Times analysis. Khanna, a former intellectual property attorney, made major inroads in Cupertino and Sunnyvale and in Milpitas and Fremont, home to sizable Indian American populations.

Honda, however, had strongholds in San Jose, Santa Clara and Newark, lower- to middle-income cities with larger Latino populations.

Khanna and Honda agree on many major issues, including opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, helping relieve student debt and raising the federal minimum wage.

While Honda has touted his decades of experience — first as Santa Clara County supervisor and then state assemblyman, and a self-described “proven record” as a progressive — Khanna has portrayed his opponent as woefully out of touch with a district that is known for being cutting-edge.

Khanna has also seized on the protracted ethics investigation still hanging over Honda’s head.

Last year, the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics found “substantial reason to believe” that Honda used official taxpayer resources to benefit his campaign, which is against House rules. The report quoted emails between Honda’s chief of staff and his campaign manager about who should be invited to a State Department event.

The matter was referred to the House Ethics Committee, which is still investigating. Honda called the issues raised “clerical in nature,” and said he’d raised a “firewall” in his office that bars any office employees from working on the campaign, even as volunteers.

“I didn’t break any laws,” Honda said in an interview, adding that the Khanna campaign “used some of the emails as if to say … we were practicing pay-to-play [politics].”

But Khanna called Honda’s alleged actions a “cardinal sin” that “erodes trust in government.”

Honda has opened a separate legal defense fund, allowing him to raise money specifically for his legal fees.

Despite his legal challenges, Cain says, Honda’s chances of retaining his seat will come down to getting voters to the polls. Higher Republican turnout is thought to favor Khanna, who has received support from some right-leaning donors, while true-blue liberals who might turn out for Hillary Clinton and other establishment Democrats will likely favor Honda.

In the nation’s highest Asian-majority district, where nearly 15% of the population is Indian American, ethnic voting patterns could be key as well.

“When you bring down an incumbent, it’s not just one thing,” Gerston said, but a combination of the district’s changing demographics, the looming investigation and other factors could make Honda more vulnerable.

And in a year when anti-establishment messages seem to be resonating, Gerston said, “you kind of wonder whether Honda, despite his past and close ties with the community…may get swept out in that same tide.”

christine.maiduc@latimes.com, sandra.poindexter@latimes.com

For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.

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