"We've got to have enough of the Republican vote and the independent vote to get into second place," said Bird, who's serving as Khanna's general consultant. "The new system is totally different, it's fascinating. It gives voters an opportunity to really have a choice. It changes what we really need to do and fundamentally changes the way you approach campaigning."
Since the top-two primary system was implemented in California in 2011, there's been a marked change in the behavior of candidates, particularly those running in safe seats. In partisan primaries, candidates usually played to the base. But now, conservatives are often the swing voting group in safely Democratic districts, while liberals can make the difference in safely Republican seats. Under the old system, Khanna would have had to win an outright majority of Democrats dissatisfied enough with Honda's tenure to kick him out of office — a formidable task. Now, he can cobble together a coalition of pro-business Democrats, independents, and Republicans.
Khanna's message is that he boasts fresher ideas on issues facing the Silicon Valley district than the 72-year-old congressman, who critics argue is generationally out of touch with his constituents. Khanna has accused the congressman of being needlessly partisan, while promoting proposals that can win support from both Republicans and Democrats. Khanna has equated his campaign to a startup venture, and he has plenty of financial capital to rely upon, comfortably outraising Honda thanks to donations from the tech elite such as Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, Google's Eric Schmidt, and Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg. The two largest newspapers in the region, the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News, endorsed Khanna.
Honda has the support of the Democratic establishment on his side, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, along with the major labor unions. Even Obama offered his endorsement to Honda, despite his ties to Khanna. The congressman is regularly ranked as one of the most liberal members of the House, according to National Journal's vote ratings. But that's no longer enough in primaries where candidates need to persuade a broader swath of the electorate.
"You can't get elected anymore by only appealing to the most ideological element of your base. The top-two is changing the path to get elected," said California political analyst Allan Hoffenblum. "Because of the weakness of the Republican Party in the state, you're seeing business getting behind the more moderate Democrats and traditional liberals getting behind those who represent the labor coalition. You have a more diverse group of legislators, not all of whom are beholden to the interest groups."
Republicans are experiencing their own unconventional situation in an eastern California congressional race featuring Rep. Tom McClintock, one of the most conservative Republicans in the House. Running in a solidly Republican district, McClintock isn't facing any Democratic candidates on this year's ballot, but he's growing increasingly concerned about a challenge from Republican Art Moore, a 36-year-old West Point graduate and Army major who's running to McClintock's left. Moore's argument: McClintock is so ideologically driven that he's not doing enough to tend to the district's needs. He has cited McClintock's support of the government shutdown and vote against the farm bill as weaknesses in the largely agricultural district.