Silicon Valley’s congressional candidate flubs his beta test

June 6, 2014, 7:48 PM UTC
Courtesy: The Khanna Campaign

As Silicon Valley leaders build their Washington beachhead, it’s only natural they’d want one of their own representing them in the U.S. House. So the biggest names in the tech industry are rallying behind the upstart candidacy of Ro Khanna, a 37-year-old technology lawyer, in his bid to dislodge fellow Democrat Mike Honda, a labor-friendly 72-year old in office over a decade.

The race has gotten national headlines thanks to the firepower Khanna has assembled behind his candidacy. Not only does the list of his contributors read like a who’s who of the sector’s elite — Marc Andreessen, John Doerr, Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt, among others, have all forked over personal cash — but his campaign itself is stocked with alums of President Obama’s reelection team, including Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 national field director.

The district, California’s 17th, is home to the corporate headquarters of Apple (AAPL), eBay (EBAY), Intel (INTC) and Yahoo (YHOO), and the contest so far has been more about style than substance. Khanna is offering himself up as the candidate with the savvy and energy to better represent tech’s interests in Washington. (And he seems to know how to talk to a crowd that likes to think in 9-digit numbers: The outgoing voicemail message on the telephone number listed on Khanna’s campaign website tells callers they’ve reached “five billion, one-hundred and seven million, three hundred fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and eighty four.”)

Khanna’s bid got its first road test on Tuesday, when he faced off against Honda and a few other long-shot hopefuls in the primary for the seat. So how’d he do?

In a word: Eh.

After spending nearly $2.6 million so far, much of it toward building the sort of whiz-bang tech infrastructure that helped lift Obama to victory nationally a couple years ago, Khanna gathered 27 percent of the vote, to Honda’s 49 percent. In most cases, that would spell the end of his run. But under California’s new jungle primary system, the top two finishers, regardless of party, go on to face off on the November ballot, and Khanna’s margin was enough to earn himself a rematch.

Unsurprisingly, Khanna’s team says they’ve got Honda right where they want him. Bird points out that a poll that Honda’s campaign commissioned last spring showed the incumbent leading Khanna 57-to-5, so the challenger’s performance in the primary amounted to a 22-point swing.

“The big thing between now and November is that the electorate fundamentally shifts,” he says.

That is, the people who showed up on Tuesday were predominantly party regulars, the sort that interest groups like organized labor are practiced at turning out. For the general election, Khanna’s campaign expects the pool of voters to roughly double, with the influx coming from younger, more diverse, more politically independent types disposed toward the challenger’s technocratic appeal.

Bird acknowledges the campaign has some work cut out. We’re going to do what all good startups do, which is what a campaign is, and after our first test, go back and look at everything and see what worked and what we want to tweak moving forward,” he says. And Khanna needs to ensure that he isn’t seen simply as a stalking horse for billionaire tech titans. Bird points to the candidate’s record of public service — he served as a deputy assistant secretary in Obama’s Commerce Department — and his interest in promoting the reshoring of manufacturing jobs, detailed in his book, “Entrepreneurial Nation.”

Ethan Rarick, director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at Berkeley, says that Tuesday’s results shouldn’t come as a huge surprise: “The power of incumbency is substantial.” And he says Khanna has both the time and the space to make up his deficit, considering the makeup of the electorate in the general election should tip his way.

“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Rarick says. “That said, you’d rather be Mike Honda than Ro Khanna right now.”