With friends like these, who needs an opposing campaign?
Special-interest political committees and wayward backers have given Rep. Mike Honda and Democratic challenger Ro Khanna "support" in recent weeks that might've hindered more than helped, leaving campaign staffers to smack their heads in consternation.
In an increasingly common sign of the times since the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case unleashed a tsunami of unlimited spending by independent groups, a union super PAC's mailers, sent to voters just before the June primary to boost Honda's odds, gave Khanna a potent talking point. A Republican former congressman's quest to involve tea partyers in supporting Khanna gave Honda a talking point of his own. And now a new super PAC has been created to support Khanna, who has spent much of this year decrying the evils of outside special-interest spending.
As the campaigns carefully choose their battles and parse their words, these loose cannons could turn an already-hot Democrat-on-Democrat battle -- one of the nation's costliest and most-watched House races, in the heart of Silicon Valley and the first Asian-American majority district outside Hawaii -- into a circular firing squad.
"I'm not sure they're saying, 'Please don't help me.' I think they're saying, 'Please help me carefully,'" said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State professor and political expert. "They want the money -- they just want the money to come in a way that's not harmful."
Some of this weird, cross-party support is due to California's top-two primary system, which has led to a general-election choice only between two members of the same party in this and some other races. But some of it is just old-fashioned politics, where money -- like water running downhill -- finds a way around all obstacles on its way to the bottom.
Steve Rosenthal, who directs the Working for Us PAC that sent two mailers to benefit Honda in late May, acknowledged that "it's a bit of a risky business" because independent expenditure groups are prohibited from coordinating with the campaigns they support.
Groups like his "don't have the luxury of the polling the candidate has, or knowing what the candidate's needs are," Rosenthal said. "I've seen lots of places where if I were the campaign I'd say, 'Thanks but no thanks.'"
One of his mailers praised GOP candidate Vanila Singh in hopes that giving her a boost could cost Khanna votes; the other accused Khanna of "sending jobs overseas" and trying to "outsource our jobs." The latter led Khanna and his supporters to accuse the PAC of using "the crudest form of racially coded language" against the Indo-American Khanna, and to berate Honda for not disavowing it. Both mailers gave the Khanna campaign ammunition to criticize the incumbent's special-interest support, yet Rosenthal has no regrets.
"I've never heard secondhand anybody in the Honda campaign saying, 'We're not happy with what these guys did,'" he said.
But Honda campaign spokesman Vivek Kembaiyan last week said the mailers were "completely counterproductive to our goal of getting Mike re-elected, and we hope that any groups who share that goal will stay out of our race."
Since then, Khanna also has had "help" he might've preferred to do without.
First, former Rep. Ernie Konnyu in July urged fellow Republicans to ante up to support an anti-Honda mailer from the Tea Party Express PAC. Khanna had nothing to do with it and Konnyu's plea went unheeded by donors, yet it got national attention via online news aggregator BuzzFeed.
Konnyu last week said he asked Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo, an old friend, to take a look at the race, and later heard that Khanna's team "went nuts -- they did not like that at all."
"Ro's team saw it as a major danger because Honda would just demonize the whole thing by basically saying, 'Ro is associating with these conservative Republican tea partyers,'" Konnyu said -- which is exactly what happened.
Tea Party Express Executive Director Taylor Budowich said Russo scrutinizes all House races, but the PAC rarely supports Democrats even against other Democrats. Konnyu is unfazed.
"The game's not over," he said, expressing hope he can rally support for a GOP-targeted mailer against the "extremist left-wing nutjob" Honda right before November's election.
This month, Ash Chopra, of Menlo Park, launched a "Californians for Innovation" super PAC in order to raise and spend unlimited money to support Khanna's campaign. That could put Khanna -- who has made a big deal of taking no PAC contributions and challenging Honda to join him in shunning independent expenditures -- in an awkward position.
Chopra, 43, a nonpartisan voter and Merrill Lynch private wealth adviser, has no apparent past as a political money man except for the $5,200 he and his wife gave Khanna's campaign in May 2013. Requests to interview him were answered by an email from Stephen Kaufman, the new super PAC's lawyer; he said only that Californians for Innovation "will make its full plans known in the coming weeks."
Meanwhile, the campaigns strive to make the most of their opponent's "help."
Khanna spokesman Tyler Law noted Honda refused Khanna's urging to sign a "People's Pledge" to shun super PAC involvement. Then came the super PAC's pre-primary mailers, yet the Honda campaign last week claimed it doesn't have a super PAC working on its behalf.
But Kembaiyan said Khanna "is clearly struggling with his consistency, being against outside money when he was flush with cash and now for it since he has squandered millions in the primary."