CONGRESS | 17TH DISTRICT | For months, Ro Khanna’s campaign pushed for a series of debates. When that could not be had, they almost begged for at least one shot at Rep. Mike Honda. Tonight in San Jose, Khanna gets his wish with a high-profile debate airing on NBC Bay Area (ch. 11) at 6:30pm. Here’s a brief primer for what to watch for.
1 OPTICS Rep. Mike Honda may have served in Congress since 2000, but not all of his current constituents in the 17th District know him well, especially the Alameda County portion, including Fremont. Honda has also never faced a challenger of note since gaining a seat in Congress until this year, nor has he had to participate in a debate of this prominence. Therefore, it’s likely that even long-time constituents have never really seen their representative in action, at least, not in this context. For Honda, he needs to exude the grandfatherly warmness many constituents and local pols invariably describe when mentioning his name. Khanna, on the other hand, needs to shed the wonky professor persona he sometimes defaults to and, instead, display the cool Khanna that also exists, but doesn’t always come out front and center. One other seemingly small thing that could be a factor tonight: this debate’s rules prohibit the candidate from bringing notes to the podium.
2 EMAILS Ro Khanna finally found an issue that could cut to the heart of why voters should ditch the incumbent Democrat for a potential freshman Democrat. Emails between Honda’s congressional office and his re-election campaign more than hint at some level of impropriety and represent a gamebreaking moment in this campaign for Khanna. There is no doubt Khanna will press the issue early and often. How Honda reacts to the attack will be key. Will he respond with plausible deniability that he was unaware of the alleged coordination or will he sternly rebuke (and admit) the incident. Either is a risky proposition. Honda needs to push this angle out of reporter’s lead paragraph.
3 BOMBSHELL Furthermore, Honda’s campaign must be prepared for anything that might be up Khanna’s sleeve Monday night. Specifically, because the nature of aforementioned emails, which are somewhat specious. For instance, most political campaigns have some level of coordination and these allegations are hardly glaring. Nonetheless, they exist and if Khanna has another unreported instance of the same kind of coordination to reveal Monday night, it will not only have reporters scrambling, but Honda’s reaction could be priceless. Remember, in this case, it’s not the severity of the allegation that could hurt Honda, but the frequency.
4 PROGRESSIVE CRED Honda will continue to impress upon voters that he is the only progressive candidate in the race—therefore, the only real Democrat to choose from. The strategy backfired for State Sen. Ellen Corbett in her primary run last June against Rep. Eric Swalwell (both Democrats). You could argue the 17th District, including Silicon Valley, has an even more burgeoning moderate bent than the neighboring 15th District. Nevertheless, it will be notable how Khanna responds to being pushed to the center on the bigger stage. It’s possible low-information voters know both candidates are Democrats, but do not understand the slight shading of blue that exists in this race. If the emails are a wildcard for Honda, the role of political ideology is the same for Khanna.
5 CAMPAIGN PIVOT POINT In the whole scheme of things, Khanna is still a long shot to upset the incumbent Honda. Khanna needs to land plenty of punches and, more importantly, pray for a self-inflict a mortal wound by Honda. Meanwhile, Honda’s overall strategy tonight needs to make any self-respecting Italian soccer coach proud. Play not to win, but to tie, preferably, nil-nil. If Honda can gain a stalemate, he will likely win re-election next month. Conversely, Khanna needs a knockout. Simply stating Honda hasn’t passed one of his bills since whenever isn’t going to be enough. If post-debate pundits are split over who won, then you know it wasn’t enough for Khanna to make a dent in his large primary deficit. Nevertheless, both candidates have reason to be nervous.