Rep. Mike Honda took a howitzer to a potential Democratic challenger's trial balloon last week, rolling out endorsers including President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with more than 16 months still to go before 2014's primary.

Who's he worried about? It's former Obama administration official Ro Khanna, who sat out last year's election after raising a record-breaking $1.2 million but choosing not to challenge veteran-but-vulnerable Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont. Khanna could be looking for his own veteran congressman to unseat after perhaps a crucial career miscalculation, as Democrat Eric Swalwell took down Stark in November.

Khanna's campaign papers never specified the district or year in which he would run, and Democrats now whisper of his plan to take on Honda, D-San Jose. Khanna said he's still mulling where and when to run, and he wouldn't comment on Honda's top-shelf backers.

"My decision on whether to run will not be based on Washington politics, it will be based on conversations in the local community," Khanna, 36, of Fremont, said Thursday. "I want to determine where I can best help in aiding the community and improving our economy."

Honda, 71, said Friday that he'd heard Khanna was claiming to have party leaders' blessing, so "just to make sure there's clarity, so there's no confusion, I went and asked for the endorsements."


Advertisement

A Khanna-Honda race could be every bit as intense, if perhaps not quite as negative, as last year's Stark-Swalwell race.

"It could be a clash of the titans, the old vs. the new ... each drawing on different strengths," said San Jose State professor Larry Gerston. "As a political scientist watching this, I find it incredibly exciting. If I were a Democratic leader, I'd be cringing."

Honda had lent his name to at least one of Khanna's most lucrative 2011 fundraisers, which Pelosi attended.

Honda said Friday he'd done so with the understanding that Khanna didn't intend to challenge Stark -- "You don't discourage energy and people who have that inspiration to serve" -- but didn't predict Khanna might someday challenge him.

Now, the chance that Khanna wants Honda's 17th Congressional District -- the source of much of Khanna's money, the first majority Asian-American House district in the continental U.S., and a cradle for the kind of innovation he sought to nurture while at the Commerce Department -- has pushed Honda to move his heavy hitters to the top of the batting order.

Obama last Monday called Honda "the right leader for the 17th District," whose "lifelong commitment to education and fierce advocacy for innovation and technology is exactly what this nation needs as we continue to move America forward." The nation needs Honda in Congress, the president said, and "I urge you to vote to keep him there."

Pelosi, D-San Francisco, on Wednesday called Honda's life "a tribute to the quintessential American ideals of equality and opportunity for all" and said he "understands the needs of Silicon Valley and the 17th District."

Honda on Friday touted endorsements from Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.

Such endorsements don't guarantee victory: Obama, Pelosi, Wasserman Schultz and Israel all had endorsed Stark, as party leaders do for loyal incumbents. The 17th District has the state's highest percentage of no-party-preference voters -- almost 32 percent -- who won't feel obliged to honor any party's wishes, and California's new top-two primary system makes it easier for Khanna to leverage those votes against Honda, as Swalwell did against Stark last year.

Gerston said if Khanna does run, a key sign will be whether the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus -- of which Honda is chairman emeritus -- endorses Honda or remains neutral. At least until then, he said, it's too early to say whether Khanna is making a shrewd move or running aground on the shoals of his own ambition.

"It's almost like a game of chicken right now, each side testing to see if the other will give," Gerston said.

Khanna might have hoped Honda either would get a presidential appointment -- in which he expressed interest as Obama began his first term -- or would retire without seeking an eighth term in 2014. But this early salvo from Honda indicates either that he's happy where he is and intends to stay, or that he at least wants to anoint his own successor.

After an unsuccessful primary challenge to Rep. Tom Lantos in 2004, Khanna built extensive relationships within the Democratic Party, which doubtlessly helped him land a two-year stint as a deputy assistant secretary in the Commerce Department, managing 108 domestic commerce offices that help companies export and innovate.

It also helped him land prominent national Democratic campaign donors, including Chicago hotel, investment and real estate billionaire Penny Pritzker; Massachusetts oil executive Richard Slifka; and Esprit cofounder Susie Tompkins Buell, of San Francisco.

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

Honda and Khanna

Rep. Mike Honda

Party: Democrat
Age: 71
Hometown: San Jose
Experience: Congressman since 2001; Assemblyman, 1996 to 2000; former science teacher, principal and school board member
Campaign cash on hand: $78,222


Ro Khanna

Party: Democrat
Age: 36
Hometown: Fremont
Experience: Attorney and Stanford University visiting lecturer; deputy assistant U.S. secretary of commerce, 2009 to 2011
Campaign cash on hand: $1,016,202