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Past And Future Collide In Silicon Valley Congressional Race

The race between Rep. Mike Honda and Ro Khanna, two California Democrats vying to represent a Silicon Valley-based congressional district, is a classic example of a generational contest — a youthful challenger claiming to represent the future taking on a popular longtime incumbent.

Taking place as it does in the nation's high-tech mecca — a place that puts a premium on youth — the contest pitting the 72-year-old Honda against Khanna, a 37-year-old intellectual property lawyer, is naturally framed as a contest between the past and the future.

On the big issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, the Affordable Care Act and Social Security, there's not much difference between Honda and Khanna. Style is where they differ.

Honda, in his seventh term, is the unabashed progressive. Shaped like a fire hydrant and soft-spoken for a politician, he's a former school principal and local pol who describes himself, among other things, as a "voice for the voiceless."

In his campaign announcement video, Democrat Ro Khanna says he's running for Congress because Silicon Valley's "innovation and energy can cut through old-style Washington politics."
/ Ro Khanna campaign
Ro Khanna campaign
In his campaign announcement video, Democrat Ro Khanna says he's running for Congress because Silicon Valley's "innovation and energy can cut through old-style Washington politics."

Khanna, meanwhile, looks and speaks like someone giving a TED talk. Indeed, the business-savvy young technocrat and lawyer has given one. That alone would make him an appealing candidate for many in Silicon Valley.

As a Commerce Department official during President Obama's first term, he organized clean-technology trade missions and was an evangelist for U.S. manufacturing. He wrote a book about the revival of U.S. manufacturing and works for one of Silicon Valley's top law firms while teaching economics at Stanford University.

The race is shaping up to be the congressman's toughest in his 14 years in Congress. That's partly because, as NPR's Hansi Lo Wang recently reported for Morning Edition, it has fractured the district's sizable Asian-American community. Honda is a Japanese-American who spent time after Pearl Harbor in a U.S. internment camp. Khanna, born in Philadelphia, is of Indian descent.

Khanna has also raised a lot of money for a challenger. For the 2014 election cycle, he has raised about $2.5 million, according to Honda, by contrast, raised nearly $1.9 million for the same period, though he outraisedKhanna during 2014's first quarter.

There are two Republicans in the race, but it's a lopsidedly Democratic district: In 2012, Obama won the 17th district with 72 percent of the vote.

That makes it possible that Honda and Khanna will meet again in November. Under California's top-two primary system, the top two finishers regardless of party affiliation go on to a general election.

Obama and the Democratic establishment generally have backed Honda. But Khanna has his high-powered supporters, too. Some of Silicon Valley's biggest names have lined up behind him. He's got Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Eric Schmidt of Google and John Doerr of venture-capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.

Khanna has also received some notable news media endorsements, including one that hinted at the generation gap between the top candidates.

The San Jose Mercury News editorial board endorsed Khanna, saying the "time has come." After praising Honda for being a "solid vote for civil rights, the environment and equal opportunity," it subtly suggested he may be slipping.

Khanna, "like any first-term congressman, [will] have a lot to learn. But he's a quick study who intelligently discusses complex legislation and economic theory," the Merc said. "This contrasts with Honda, who, in describing a bill he has proposed, alluded several times to 'Senator Connelly.' We eventually realized he meant Mitch McConnell."

Realizing some might suspect ageism on its part, the paper added: "None of this has to do with Khanna's relative youth compared to Honda's 72 years." Other local Democrats like Anna Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren, who are both older than 65, are "invaluable voices in Washington" from whom the editorial board always learns something when it meets with them. That's not true with Honda, the paper said.

We can only presume the two congresswomen have never gotten McConnell's name wrong either.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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