Ro Khanna, Silicon Valley's Wannabe Obama
Rohit (Ro) Khanna isn’t a member of Congress yet, but people who encounter him might think otherwise. He’s outgoing and amiable. He wears dark suits and polished shoes. When we met for pizza in Palo Alto recently, he had already adopted the politician’s habit of speaking in the royal “we.” As in, “The old model of politics is to run against someone and point out their deficiencies. We want to try a new model—run a campaign that is excellent in substance, in execution, in figuring out how to get people involved and win on excellence, as opposed to tearing people down.”
Khanna, 36, is campaigning to represent California’s 17th District, which includes much of Silicon Valley. Apple, Cisco, and Intel all have headquarters there. On paper, he’s the Platonic ideal of a candidate for 2013: He’s a first-generation Indian American, an Ivy League-educated technology lawyer, and already a veteran of the Obama administration, having done a stint as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Still, the odds of his representing anyone in Congress next year look awfully long. Khanna is vying to unseat incumbent Democrat Mike Honda, a seven-term congressman. In March, Honda’s campaign released a poll showing him with a 52-point lead over Khanna, who drew a meager 5 percent support.
What makes Khanna more interesting than your typical underdog is who else he has in his corner. On April 2, when he announced that he would challenge Honda, he also revealed that the people who will be running his campaign are many of the same ones who just got Barack Obama reelected. Even though Khanna has never been elected to anything, he has managed to sign up one of Obama’s top-three fundraisers, Steve Spinner, as his campaign chairman; Obama’s national field director, Jeremy Bird, as his chief strategist; and the president’s media firm, pollster, and data-analytics team, along with assorted other veterans of the reelection. Their aim is to build at the congressional level the same type of campaign they ran for Obama. It’s as if Bill Belichick and the staff of the New England Patriots decided to coach a high school football team.
One of the big questions after Obama’s reelection was how his campaign, widely acknowledged to be the most sophisticated in presidential history, would influence American politics going forward. Much of the machinery has been redirected to Organizing for Action, a group run by Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, that pushes the president’s agenda. But the billion-dollar question politicians and analysts are pondering is whether the techniques honed in the race against Mitt Romney can produce the same results with candidates other than Obama. They want to know whether, as Spinner puts it, “you can take the secret sauce of the Obama campaign and apply it down the ticket.”
Khanna is the first test case. He might seem an unlikely choice—not only because Hillary Clinton, or a promising gubernatorial candidate, or one of the many vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection in 2014 all seem like more natural beneficiaries of this state-of-the-art campaign firepower, but also because Khanna is taking on a fellow Democrat. Yet the merit of challenging a popular establishment figure is deeply ingrained in the people who inhabit the president’s inner orbit. They see themselves as being loyal to something larger and purer than party alone. That was the rationale for challenging Clinton in 2008. It’s also the reason they give for supporting Khanna. “In 2007 we saw a guy who most people didn’t know and didn’t give much chance to be president,” says Larry Grisolano, a strategist and ad maker for Obama. “But we thought we could build a movement around his personal story and vision for the future. That’s what attracted us to Obama. These people don’t come around every day. But we all have an excitement about races that have that possibility. I think that in Ro, there’s the sense that he’s that kind of candidate.”
The race will be as much a test of the Obama apparatus as it will be of Khanna. And it could clarify the answer to a running debate in politics: whether Barack Obama is a once-in-a-generation talent or whether he’s the talented beneficiary of new insights and strategies that will outlast him. Despite Khanna’s upstart status, chief strategist Bird predicts, “He should win.”
Khanna grew up in Bucks County, Pa., the son of Hindu immigrants, and earned degrees from the University of Chicago and Yale Law School before heading West. He credits his grandfather, a freedom fighter in the Indian independence movement alongside Mahatma Gandhi, with orienting him toward public service. “When I was young,” he says, “we would visit him and he would tell stories of his four years in jail, which shaped my interest in human rights, current events, and international relations.”
His first brush with electoral politics has the same Hollywood gloss as Bill Clinton’s encounter with John F. Kennedy as a teenager. “When I was a student at Chicago, a guy named Will Burns, now an alderman, was my boss at a volunteer organization where I tutored African American kids in math and science,” Khanna recalls. “One day, he told me, ‘You’ve gotta go walk precincts with this guy.’” It turned out to be Obama, who, at 36, was running his first campaign for the Illinois Senate. “He was probably the first politician I’d met,” Khanna continues. “My recollection is that he was an exceedingly decent, gracious person, and that there was a lot of buzz around him as the future mayor. At the time, people talked about Obama as the next Harold Washington—who was, to be clear, viewed with extreme reverence. They thought Obama could be the next black mayor of Chicago. That got me interested in politics.”
In 2003, having finished law school and moved to the Bay Area, Khanna, then 26, launched an impromptu challenge to the beloved local congressman, the late Tom Lantos, to protest the then 11-term Democrat’s support for the Iraq War. “It was completely unstrategic and probably the most idealistic thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. Khanna lost the race but acquired a mentor. Lantos introduced him to Nancy Pelosi and other local Democratic bigwigs. He began organizing the Bay Area’s large Asian American community and raising money for Democratic politicians, including Honda. These patrons helped steer him to a job as deputy assistant secretary of Commerce in the Obama administration, which allowed him to travel the country for two years, meeting with manufacturers and helping them figure out how better to export products, overcome trade barriers, and open up foreign markets.
Khanna left the Commerce Department in 2011, wrote a book valorizing American manufacturing (Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing Is Still Key to America’s Future), and formed a committee to explore a run for Congress in 2012. It raised a staggering $1.2 million, much of it from Silicon Valley’s marquee names—including Eric Schmidt, Vinod Khosla, Marc Andreessen, and John Doerr. He had his sights set on Representative Pete Stark, the cantankerous and increasingly unpopular congressman running in the new 15th District in the East Bay, who was 80 years old and seemed ripe for defeat.
Then Khanna did something distinctly un-Obama-like: He balked. “I felt I needed more time to settle back into the Bay Area,” he says. Stark wound up losing to a 31-year-old Alameda County prosecutor, Eric Swalwell, shutting off Khanna’s clearest path to Congress.
In 2010, California redrew its congressional map and abolished party primaries in a bid to open up the process. Honda’s old district vanished, but he won a seat representing the new 17th District. Were someone to scour the country for the district most amenable to the Obama toolkit, they could not do better than California’s 17th. Its population is highly educated, wealthy, and wired, as well as diverse. It’s the only mainland U.S. district where the voting-age population is majority Asian American and, as such, it’s reliably Democratic. It also happens to be the country’s second-largest manufacturing district, after Wichita. “It’s the perfect district to run the kind of race we want to run,” says Bird.
Honda isn’t exactly out of sync here. A Japanese American imprisoned in a U.S. internment camp during World War II, he’s a former educator and admired party fixture. “People know me,” he says. “My mom was born here. I’ve touched two-and-a-half generations of folks through my teaching.” But neither is he a perfect fit. At 71, he’s a white-haired embodiment of the old guard in a district where everything trends toward the new. “I don’t think anyone would characterize him as a mover and a shaker,” says John Kupper, a partner in David Axelrod’s former firm who is working for Khanna.
While acknowledging the imperative to groom a new generation of Democrats, Honda says “it needs to be done in an appropriate way that isn’t going to offend someone who can defeat you. I guess he feels pressure to spend all his money.”
Honda may hold a massive lead in the polls, but Khanna clearly has his attention. Trying hard to sound like a mover and shaker, Honda salts his conversation with tech buzzwords like “risk taker” and “angel investor” that are plainly foreign to him. He was sufficiently rattled to secure early endorsements from Obama, Pelosi, and the head of the Democratic National Committee, although these are pro forma for a sitting member not mired in scandal.
Looking ahead, Honda says he’ll emphasize his “preparation, experience, and seniority” while drawing on his ties to labor, teachers’ unions, and local nonprofits. In other words, he’ll run the kind of campaign that Democratic incumbents have been running for decades but in a district that increasingly looks, sounds, thinks, and acts more like his rival.
As Khanna’s race against Honda plays out, it will not only bring a clash between young and old, insurgent and establishment, but also test Obama’s brand of politics in a new arena. Most traditional Democratic interest groups are lining up behind Honda. But early indications are that the new coalition that emerged to elect Obama is going to side with Khanna, including many tech titans whose support was instrumental when Obama first took on that same establishment as a long-shot presidential candidate in 2007.
In Washington, Obama’s idea of a post-partisan America has gone stale. Khanna and his advisers believe that its power endures. His own flourish is recasting that idea as the pathway to economic salvation. “I believe there are ways of cutting past some of the ideological logjams in Washington when it comes to issues of American economic competitiveness and a pro-growth agenda,” he says. By implication, Honda, the reliable party man, is part of the problem—a message that doubles as an appeal to the independents and Republicans who will vote in the open primary.
“The Obama vision is still in demand,” Grisolano says. “I think you’ll hear candidates across the country trying to meet it. When you listen to Ro, you’ll hear it. It’s very Obama-like in its echoes of challenging Hillary.”
What will be more intriguing, though, is the attempt to build a new network modeled on the one that delivered such a resounding victory to Obama. “The goal in bringing together the best talent from the Obama team,” says Spinner, “is to run a campaign in a strong Democratic district that operates like a battleground state in a presidential election.” That entails a paired focus on grass-roots organizing and technology in a district primed for both. “We’re going to be driven by analytics,” says Bird. “That means everything from building models to having really smart feedback on what we’re doing and being able to track it and base our decisions on metrics. We’ll be very digitally sophisticated where it makes sense—to get votes, get volunteers, and raise money.”
By law, Khanna’s campaign is forbidden from using Obama’s database of donors, staffers, and volunteers. They are richly concentrated in Silicon Valley, where the residents’ wealth, liberal opinion, and online activism were a big help to Obama, even though the nearest battleground state was many miles away. Lacking access to that database, however, does not mean that Khanna will lack access to those volunteers. Leah Cowan, Khanna’s campaign manager, estimates that 1,000 veterans of the Obama campaign reside in the 17th District and likens them to sleeper cells that can be activated for Khanna. All of them operated under Bird, and many already know each other. Khanna has been traversing the district to enlist them in his cause.
There’s no guarantee they’ll go along, or, if they do, that Khanna will win. Other candidates in other parts of the country became causes célèbres among liberal Net-roots activists and still lost—former Representative Tom Perriello in Virginia, Senate candidate Scott Kleeb in Nebraska. But none was as well-funded or well-organized as Khanna will be or backed by the Obama brain trust.
While Bird and his staff dismiss the notion that the Obama campaign was “magic in a box” that can be franchised like some sort of Applebee’s, that’s exactly what they’re attempting to do in Silicon Valley. If anything, their expertise may be more valuable at this level. “Data is more important in House races than in presidential races,” Messina says, “because midterm elections are all about turnout and data makes that easier.”
If the experiment works, it could be a harbinger of things to come, and an important part of institutionalizing Obama’s influence over the party. “There’s a whole generation of Democrats inspired by the Obama campaign who will go run for office,” says Bird. “Not just candidates, but managers and field directors that know how to do this.”