Silicon Valley has traditionally stayed aloof from politics. But richer and more powerful than ever, the tech industry has become increasingly involved, both in lobbying and in fund-raising.
In Sunnyvale, California, the land of technology start-ups, Ro Khanna is its political version. Backed by many of Silicon Valley’s top investors and executives at Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other tech companies, Mr. Khanna, a 37-year-old patent lawyer who has never held elected office, has mounted an aggressive campaign for the seat from the 17th Congressional District in the heart of the Valley.
Mr. Khanna’s ambitions, and those of the tech elite behind him, are clear. A Democrat, Mr. Khanna is trying to oust a fellow Democrat, Representative Michael M. Honda, who remains popular after seven terms and has been endorsed by President Obama and the rest of the Democratic establishment. Using the jargon of tech start-ups, Mr. Khanna says he will be a “disruptive” force in Washington.
Thanks to tech’s support, Mr. Khanna has significantly outraised Mr. Honda. Four months before the primary, the challenger has $1,975,000 in cash on hand, or more than triple the incumbent’s $623,000, according to campaign finance records filed last Friday.
Whether or not this political start-up is ultimately successful, Mr. Khanna’s campaign underscores the tech industry’s push to elect candidates who will further its interests in Washington, even if that means, as in this race, trying to replace a party stalwart with a relative unknown.
A liberal, pro-labour Democrat with a passion for civil rights, Mr. Honda, 72, is generally regarded as being on the side of the tech industry, but not as aggressive a champion as other congressmen in the region.
“The tech community is looking for advocates who will be really, really outspoken for tech, and Ro fits that mold,” said Ron Conway, who is one of the industry’s most influential investors and is backing Mr. Khanna. While it is unusual for tech leaders to rally in such a way around a candidate, Mr. Conway added, “I’m hoping it’s a wave of the future that continues, because it’s crucial for the tech community to have a really active voice in Washington.”
Mr. Khanna, who was a deputy assistant commerce secretary from 2009 to 2011 and now represents tech companies in intellectual property cases at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious law firms, talks of the need for “Government 2.0” and a “reset” of Congress.
The author of “Entrepreneurial Nation,” a book on manufacturing and American competitiveness, he has been endorsed by Google’s executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt; Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg; Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer; and many other tech luminaries. After knocking on the doors of potential voters here in Sunnyvale on a recent afternoon, Mr. Khanna said of his list of tech endorsers, “Everyone who is seen as a person of the future has endorsed our campaign.”
Facing a serious challenge for the first time since being elected to Congress in 2000, Mr. Honda said he represented the interests not only of tech companies but also of the wider district. “It’s about experience, the time you spent in the community, your record and people’s expectations,” he said recently, after leading a seminar on science education at Cisco’s headquarters in San Jose.
At a time when the tech industry has drawn a backlash in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the tech elite are increasingly portrayed as concerned with their narrow privileges at the expense of society at large, Mr. Honda’s supporters have labelled Mr. Khanna a “Silicon Valley groupie” whose wealthy donors are trying to buy a congressional seat.
Silicon Valley has traditionally stayed aloof from politics. But richer and more powerful than ever, the tech industry has become increasingly involved, both in lobbying and in fund-raising. And some of its boldface names have shown strong support for particular candidates, including Cory Booker of New Jersey in his successful run for the United States Senate and Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco’s campaign for a full term.
Many of Mr. Khanna’s backers were behind Mr. Lee’s election, particularly Mr. Conway. In a fund-raiser for Mr. Khanna last year, Sean Parker, a founder of Napster, is seen in a video shot by The San Francisco Chronicle saying, “I think we’re starting to come into a realisation of our own power and of our own capability, not just as innovators and technology pioneers, but also in a political sense.”
Tech support has also given Mr. Khanna the means to hire political advisers who worked on Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, including Jeremy Bird, the former national field director.
Rusty Rueff, a tech industry veteran, said he was an example of Silicon Valley’s political transformation. Apolitical until 2011, when he began backing Mr. Obama, Mr. Rueff, 51, now sits on a committee advising Mr. Khanna, only the second political candidate he has supported.
“His formative years, he’s had a screen in front of him, and then not only has he grown up around it, he’s written about it, he’s been involved on the legal side,” Mr. Rueff said. “He identifies with us, and we identify with someone who thinks that way.”
For his part, Mr. Honda, a former public-school teacher, held several local and state public offices before going to Congress. He is a Japanese-American whose views on politics and civil rights were molded by his family’s internment during World War II. Over the years, Mr. Honda has nurtured many Asian-American political candidates, some of whom are in the 17th District, the first majority Asian-American district in the mainland United States.
Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University, said that while Mr. Honda had supported the tech industry over the years, he had defined himself through his passionate campaigns for the poor, public education and civil rights. “He bleeds little guy,” Dr. Gerston said.
Mr. Honda’s aides said the congressman had supported immigration changes, science education, nanotechnology and other issues that Silicon Valley cares about. They point to Intel, Google, Oracle, Yahoo and other tech companies whose political action committees are helping in his re-election.
Asad Jamal, chairman of ePlanet Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, said he was backing Mr. Honda because of his support of technology as well as his socially progressive issues.
“Silicon Valley has a culture of backing new people in start-ups, and Ro is very persuasive and a good candidate,” Mr. Jamal said. “But Mike is exceptional and has a proven track record.”
Dilawar Syed, another tech entrepreneur backing Mr. Honda, said Silicon Valley cares about broader issues beyond tech, including social justice, and is not monolithic. “You have to look at the whole thing and not get confused by the endorsements of some individuals,” he said.
Still, the list of Silicon Valley individuals endorsing Mr. Khanna — which also includes Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder; John Doerr, the venture capitalist; and Randi Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Zuckerberg Media and the sister of Mark Zuckerberg, a Facebook founder — has given the challenger instant credibility. The average size of individual contributions to Mr. Khanna’s campaign is double to triple those of Mr. Honda’s. In the latest filing, of the 220 individual donors to Mr. Khanna’s campaign, 27 listed their occupation as “C.E.O.,” four as “chief financial officers” and about 40 as being involved in investments.
The money gives Mr. Khanna an advantage in what could become one of the costliest congressional races in the nation.
Though both candidates are Democrats, they are expected to face each other in a general election in November under California’s top-two primary system, after a primary in June.
A Republican candidate, Vanila Singh, an anesthesiologist who, like Mr. Khanna, is Indian-American, is also running in the solidly Democratic district.
Pointing to the example of Meg Whitman, the tech executive who spent part of her fortune in an unsuccessful bid for governor in California, Mr. Honda said: “We know that money is not everything. People in this area understand that you need funds, but you don’t buy the election.”
But Mr. Honda’s supporters have gone further.
Democracy for America, the group founded by Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, endorsed Mr. Honda while describing Mr. Khanna as a “Silicon Valley groupie” and a candidate “whose big-money donors are intent on buying Mike’s congressional seat.”
Mr. Khanna, whose campaign has not accepted donations from political action committees, waved away that accusation. He said he simply had a better understanding of the global economy and of Silicon Valley’s place in it. For example, he said, he favours changes to tax policy suitable for a global economy, including ones that would make it easier for American companies to repatriate overseas profits without being taxed under certain conditions.
“I wear tech groupie as a badge of honour,” he said. “It’s a fundamental difference in our campaign.”