Ro Khanna is as closely tied with President Obama as any congressional challenger on the ballot this year. The intellectual property lawyer-turned-assistant Commerce secretary began working for Obama when he was an unknown Illinois state senator, and later joined his first presidential campaign. Now running as the insurgent challenger against Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, he boasts a campaign team filled with many of the president's leading strategists, including Obama's national field director, Jeremy Bird, and his director of paid media, Larry Grisolano.
But unseating an incumbent is a tough task, one complicated by the fact that Khanna and Honda agree on most major issues. Khanna's real saving grace is that elections in California are conducted differently than in most other states. California's recently changed election rules eliminated partisan primaries in favor of candidates from all parties running on the same ballot, with the top two finishers moving ahead to the general election. Candidates running in overwhelmingly partisan seats are now incentivized to reach out to voters in the middle, not to mention the opposing party.
So in an ironic twist, the longtime Obama acolyte will be relying on Republican voters to help him achieve the upset. Khanna needs to peel enough GOP votes away from the lesser-known Republican candidates on the ballot so he can face Honda one-on-one in November. And if he moves into the general election, winning over the 17th District's small number of Republicans — they make up about one-fifth of the vote — will be pivotal to an upset victory.
"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.
In a sign of the race's competitiveness, McClintock's campaign has been sending out mailers attacking a third candidate, independent Jeffrey Gerlach, as the true liberal candidate in the race in a last-ditch attempt to prevent Moore from reaching the November ballot.
The top-two system "provides a lot of opportunities for elected officials to be held accountable. Tom McClintock wouldn't be held accountable without this system," said Rob Stutzman, a Moore consultant who served as an aide to moderate GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "One-third of Republicans could vote against him, and the Democrats and independents dislike McClintock so much, instead of just not voting, they can fire him."
Stutzman, a champion of the new system, was a bit more circumspect on whether the new rules empower moderate candidates to run or merely provide incentives for ideologues to mask their beliefs. In a November election featuring two Republicans or two Democrats, there's clear evidence that the candidates moderate their messages to appeal to centrist voters. In the 2012 elections, ultraliberal Rep. Pete Stark lost to first-time candidate Eric Swalwell, who appealed to moderate voters to unseat the 80-year-old incumbent. In a solidly Republican open seat in the eastern California desert, Rep. Paul Cook, the establishment candidate, handily defeated a tea-party-oriented challenger.
But in the primary, the results often hinge on how many candidates of a certain party end up running and how narrowly they split the partisan vote. Indeed, the new rules are encouraging election shenanigans like McClintock's effort to boost a nonviable candidate into the general election. In the race against Honda, Khanna has faced criticism that his campaign recruited additional Republican candidates into the race to slice up the GOP vote, improving the odds that he finishes in second place. (Khanna's campaign denied the charges.)
And even though the reforms are forcing candidates to moderate their views, they're not encouraging independent voters to turn out. In November 2012, the "no party preference" voters made up 21 percent of the California electorate, but in the June primary, that number dropped to a paltry 11 percent.
"Changing the rules is the first step to make changes in politics," said Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican consultant, who is now running as an independent candidate for California secretary of state because of the election reforms. "The top-two primary is a much more welcoming landscape for someone who's ideologically or dispositionally inclined to reach across the party lines. And maybe that's a habit you take to Sacramento or Washington."