Democratic Rep. Mike Honda and fellow Democrat Ro Khanna both advanced to the general election in California’s 17th District Tuesday night — setting off what’s expected to be one of the most costly and competitive intra-party races of the 2014 cycle.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Honda led with 49 percent, followed by Khanna at 27 percent. Both Republican candidates, Vanila Singh and Joel Vanlandingham, failed to make the general: Singh was at 17 percent and Vanlandingham was at 7 percent.
Honda’s 22-point margin was slightly higher than the one predicted by a KPIX-TV/SurveyUSA poll in late May: that survey had Honda at 40 percent, to Khanna’s 21 percent.
It’s difficult to use the primary results as an accurate gauge of what could happen in the fall, since the electorate could be markedly different, and there’s still little precedent for California’s top-two races. However, what would never have been possible for Khanna in a straight party primary — taking out an incumbent member of Congress, particularly one who has the strong backing of the Democratic establishment in his district — is more feasible under California’s new system, first implemented in 2012.
It’s the setup that allowed now-Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat, to defeat longtime Democratic Rep. Pete Stark in another San Francisco Bay Area-House seat in 2012 — a model Khanna’s campaign hopes to emulate and cites as proof that he can win in November.
Khanna will need a much bigger boost between now and November than Swalwell got, though: in 2012, Swalwell lost the primary to Stark by 6 points and ended up winning in November by just over 4 points, a swing of 10 percentage points. For Khanna to win by the narrowest of margins, 51 percent to 49 percent, for example, he’d need to gain 24 points’ worth of support.
Khanna entered the race more than a year ago and grabbed national attention with a team of former Obama campaign staffers — former national field director Jeremy Bird and pollster David Binder among them — endorsements from big Silicon Valley tech CEOs and a series of big fundraising hauls.
“Our job from the beginning was, we’ve got to make our case to enough voters in the district so we can use the primary to springboard ourselves into the general election,” Bird told POLITICO. “If you look at the district right next door, the Swalwell-Stark race, that’s exactly what happened: Swalwell got into the top two and used that as an opportunity to make it a choice between two candidates.”
The challenger has spent more than $2.6 million on the race, a portion of which went toward introducing the candidate on TV but most of which went to developing an Obama-style field operation in the district. Bird’s 270 Strategies is working on the race, crafting both a field operation and an advanced digital effort.
As of Monday, the Khanna campaign has reached out to more than 290,000 voters either by phone or going door-to-door. The candidate himself frequently goes out canvassing: he’s knocked on 5,100 doors so far and has attended 184 small meet-and-greet events. And the campaign has 147 organizing fellows helping keep the whole ground operation moving.
Honda is close to universally-known in his district — and as Tuesday night’s results proved, Khanna still has a long way to go before he can catch up on that front. Honda will also have strong backing from San Jose-area unions, which will likely provide an organizing force of their own.
And Khanna still needs to convince voters in the district, many of whom have cast their ballots for Honda for more than a decade, to throw out the incumbent. The two men have few policy disagreements; Khanna argues it’s more a difference of style and of energy, and that he’s the candidate who can best represent the interests of Silicon Valley in Congress.
So far, Honda’s campaign has stayed off TV and kept a fairly low profile on the campaign trail. His team sent out a series of negative mailers hitting Khanna but otherwise planned to keep their powder dry for the general election.
As of May 14, Honda had $1,042,293 on hand after spending about $1.1 million on the race so far; Khanna had $1,016,202 on hand, having spent just under $2.6 million.