As expected, California's open primary process concluded Tuesday and in the closely watched 17th Congressional District, the election advanced two Democrats - incumbent Congressman Mike Honda and challenger Ro Khanna to the ballot in November. Mike Honda finished first, with roughly 48% of the vote, and Ro Khanna came in second with about 27%.
The positioning of the candidates in the primary was hardly ever in doubt. But Honda's hefty 21-point margin over Khanna seems to be giving his supporters a sense of security, and the national media sees it as proof of Honda's insurmountable political strength.
Without a doubt, Mike Honda does have overwhelming political strength in the district, especially among the state's Democratic and labor machines. A Khanna victory in November will be an upset of epic proportions.
However, both the solace of Honda's supporters as well as the national media coverage come without a serious point of context: Even with all of his strengths, establishment Democratic and Labor backing, universal name recognition, and a popular incumbency propelling him, Mike Honda failed to break 50% in a low-turnout primary dominated heavily by the party faithful. For contrast, consider the margins of other Bay Area Democratic incumbents last night.
Not only is Mike Honda's margin lower than every single other incumbent Democratic member of Congress in the Bay Area, with one exception, it is less than half of the margin of anyone else. The only one that comes even close is Rep. Eric Swalwell. Eric who? Exactly. Swalwell is a freshman member of Congress who replaced a Democratic incumbent himself in 2012, and is nowhere near the institutional behemoth that Honda is.
Honda is also the only well-known Bay Area Democratic incumbent to come out of the primary holding onto less than 50% of the vote.
That has to raise the question: if Khanna's campaign has been successful in holding under 50% a Democratic powerhouse like Mike Honda in a low-turnout primary election dominated by the establishment, just what makes anyone think that it won't be able to overpower that powerhouse in November, when the electorate is less dominated by the party's establishment and the faithful? That possibility becomes even more real when you consider that in November, there won't be any other candidates to split or spoil the anti-Honda vote.
One newspaper that hinted at this is the local paper of record, the San Jose Mercury News, saying:
Khanna, 37, stands to inherit at least some of the votes that went to the Republicans in this race. It's hard to see how anyone who voted for Singh or Vanlandingham would choose the archliberal Honda, 72, in November; Khanna is liberal, too, but offers a more tech-industry-friendly message that is more likely to appeal to crossover voters than Honda's.
While I believe that the Merc's focus on ideology may be less warranted in this case, their larger point is well taken. Voters in the district who voted for the other candidates are not likely to cast their ballots for Honda in November. Khanna not only has the opportunity over the next five months to convince some Honda voters to switch, but also to make sure those who weren't going to vote for Honda get out and vote for him.
As opposed to the Bay Area's only other Democratic incumbent with a soft result in the primary, where Eric Swalwell will only have to persuade Democrats/Democratic-leaning voters to come home since his opponent will be a Republican, Mike Honda has the task of holding onto the Democrats and defuse Khanna's broad appeal to an electorate that will be much broader than the primary (broader, that is, in the sense of both larger and ideologically more varied).
Ro Khanna has challenged Honda to five debates - one a month from now to November, and the district is going to watch to see whether Mike Honda continues to evade debating. Honda campaign has claimed that they want a campaign on the issues, and they have attacked Ro Khanna on the issues. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Mike Honda has the confidence to face Khanna to resolve those charges in person.
There is little doubt that Mike Honda starts the general election campaign with a clear, sizeable and considerable advantage - but not an insurmountable one, not by a long shot.
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