Two last-minute Republican candidates have crowded the field in the Bay Area's most-watched House race, turning a high-profile showdown between Democrats into a multidimensional numbers game complicated by party politics, ethnicity and the state's "top-two" primary system.
With the filing period now closed for the June 3 primary, a once-safe seven-term incumbent, Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, suddenly has four challengers, but how they split the vote -- and impact the fortunes of Honda's biggest threat, fellow Democrat Ro Khanna -- creates a fascinating dynamic for the race.
Three of Honda's challengers are Indo-Americans, in the continental United States' first Asian-American majority district. Three have demonstrable ties to Silicon Valley. And all four aim to come in second behind Honda in June's primary, in order to advance to a one-on-one showdown with him in November.
Having one Republican in the race might've helped Honda by stripping Khanna of GOP votes. But now that two more Republicans surprisingly jumped in before Friday's deadline, the 17th District's conservatives might end up so split that Khanna can surpass all of them in June.
"There's something for everyone, but nothing sure for anyone," Larry Gerston, a San Jose State University political expert, said Monday. "But if I put a dollar on this right now. Larry Gerston, a San Jose State University political expert. ... I don't see any of the new three really replacing the two who have been going at it the longest."
Both of those two played down the entry of Republican candidates Joel Vanlandingham and Vinesh Singh Rathore on Monday.
"I welcome all candidates to the race and look forward to hearing their positions and ideas for the future," said Khanna, of Fremont, a former Obama administration official whose fundraising prowess and high-tech campaign have raised national attention among Democrats.
And Honda campaign spokesman Vivek Kembaiyan said that his campaign is confident Honda's "popularity and strong record of delivering for the district" will get him a spot on November's ballot. "As for who else will advance past the primary, that is for the voters to decide."
Honda is about as liberal as House Democrats come. In a two-candidate contest, Khanna -- even if only slightly more moderate -- stood to mine support not only from more moderate Democrats but also from independents and Republicans who would vote for anyone but Honda. But January's entry of Dr. Vanila Singh, a Republican from Fremont, changed that: Just having an "R" after her name meant a lot to the 19 percent of voters in the district who are registered with the GOP.
In fact, a February poll conducted by Honda's liberal allies at the Democracy for America grass-roots PAC found Honda with 45 percent of the vote, Singh with 29 percent and Khanna with 26 percent when voters were told of the three candidates' party affiliations; without party identifiers, 62 picked Honda, 27 percent picked Khanna and 11 percent picked Singh. The poll had a six-percentage-point margin of error.
Yet Singh no longer can count on unified GOP support, now that tech recruiting executive Vanlandingham and Google product counsel Rathore -- both of San Jose -- are in the race.
Neither Vanlandingham nor Rathore could be reached for comment Monday. Singh remains confident she'll advance to November.
"My campaign has already raised more money than any Republican candidate in this area since Rep. Tom Campbell," she said -- $103,000 in the first few weeks, including $25,000 from her own pocket.
"We have enjoyed enthusiastic support from grass-roots volunteers and party officials, local and national. I have been running as the lone mainstream Republican in this race for months and I do not believe voters will have any difficulty determining who to vote for in June."
Interestingly, Singh's isn't a typical GOP base. Of 40 contributors listed on her Jan. 31 campaign finance report, 13 were from out of state, including a Virginia man who gave $2,500 to Honda's campaigns from 2004 to 2007. Of the 27 California contributors, 11 are nonpartisans, four are Republicans, four are Democrats, six couldn't be found in a voter-registration database and two were businesses.
James Lai, a Santa Clara University political science associate professor, said Honda "sits really nicely in all of this" as the incumbent, with superior name recognition. But Lai acknowledged much will depend "from a mathematical point of view on how each candidate can build a coalition."
Although Census estimates say Indo-Americans make up about 15 percent of the district's population, they make up only about 5 percent of the district's registered voters, Gerston said.
It's hard to see how any of the Republicans will displace either Khanna or Honda in the top two, "absent a ton of money by one of the candidates and an awful lot of outreach," he said. If that's true, voters who support Republicans in June might be more likely to support Khanna than Honda in November, but some simply might not vote at all.
"There are a lot of moving parts," Gerston said.
Though the California Secretary of State won't publish its official list of certified candidates until March 27, it looks like the candidates will be:
Mike Honda, 72, Democrat, San Jose -- congressman since 2001, seeking eighth two-year term
Ro Khanna, 37, Democrat, Fremont -- attorney, former Obama administration Commerce Department official
Vanila Singh, 43, Republican, Fremont -- physician, teaches anesthesiology and pain medicine at Stanford University
Joel Vanlandingham, 47, Republican, San Jose -- tech recruiting executive
Vinesh Singh Rathore, 35, Republican, San Jose -- attorney at Google