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Honda, Khanna Hustle for Votes in Fight for South Bay House Seat

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Democratic challenger Ro Khanna, left, and Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, shake hands after their first and probably only general-election debate at KNTV NBC 11, in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. (John Green/ Bay Area News Group)

It’s crunch time in the 17th Congressional District. Longtime incumbent Mike Honda is battling to keep his House seat against another Democrat, Ro Khanna.

They're both using an army of volunteers to get the word out as the campaign enters its final two weeks. But as time grows tight, the campaigns appear to be targeting different political demographics.

Khanna is attempting to pick off what Democrats he can while trying to get the votes of independents, undecideds and Republicans. Honda is focusing on Democrats with a capital D.

Honda’s been in Congress for 14 years. He’s a stalwart supporter of civil rights, Social Security, the Affordable Care Act, public transportation and math and science education.

Courtney Cooper of Los Gatos can't vote for Rep. Mike Honda, but she can volunteer to work the phones. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
Courtney Cooper of Los Gatos can't vote for Rep. Mike Honda, but she can volunteer to work the phones. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

As a result he has the support of the Democratic Party structure. That includes endorsements all the way up to President Barack Obama.

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Courtney Cooper of Los Gatos used to live in Honda's district, but redistricting carved her out.

"When I lived in the district, I used to vote for him," Cooper says. "Always seemed like an upstanding guy. So I figured, if I can't give my vote, I can give my time."

As a member of the LGBTQ community, the 29-year-old Foothill College student took it to heart when Honda was one of the first elected officials to join the NOH8 campaign against Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage.

"It's not when it's popular," she said. "It's what's right."

Using a database called Vote Builder, Cooper is calling people with a history of volunteering to help get out the vote. Most of those working the phones on this particular night are taking politics and government classes at local high schools and colleges.

Honda tends to mumble in front of a microphone. But put him in front of a group of teenagers working the phone banks and the former science teacher comes alive.

In a wide-ranging conversation covering everything from his time in the Peace Corps to his favorite books, the 73-year-old connects with this crowd. One high school student asks for advice on what to say to voters who dislike Honda’s positions. He replies the student can speak to her experience.

"It’s how much do you believe in what it is that we’re doing," Honda said.

Later the same evening, Honda headlined a panel discussion at San Jose City College on sex trafficking. Before an audience of mostly Latino and Asian students, Honda drew a long, historical line between sexual slavery perpetrated by the Japanese during World War II and the activities of ISIS in the Middle East today.

"Eliminating human trafficking is not a Democratic or Republican issue," Honda said. "It’s not a women’s issue or an international issue. Human trafficking is the pre-eminent human rights issue of our day."

While Honda can campaign on his congressional record, Khanna cannot.

On a recent, balmy evening, Khanna went door to door in West San Jose. The neighborhood has a Leave It to Beaver quality about it: quiet, leafy streets packed with mid-century ranch homes.

Even for Silicon Valley, this region is more than middle class. Homes here regularly sell for more than $1 million, according to Trulia, an online real estate marketplace.

Khanna uses MiniVan, a smartphone app for a database built under the guidance of Obama for America. The app tells Khanna voters' names and party affiliations -- or lack thereof.

It’s dinner time and Khanna knows he has less than a minute to make his pitch, especially if he’s talking to a harried mom with kids at the table. A number of people don’t even bother to open the door -- they talk to Khanna through their kitchen windows.

Most people are polite but noncommittal. Khanna likes to mention he teaches economics at Stanford, but few take him up on it. Voters want to talk about schools and traffic, not the federal budget or foreign policy. So he talks about schools, and when the through-the-window conversation ends, drops a mailer on the welcome mat.

The 38-year-old intellectual property lawyer from Fremont is Indian-American. He says a year ago it seemed he was only known by the Indian community. But then a handful of high powered tech titans like Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and angel investor Ron Conway started contributing to his campaign. That money helped fund a series of ads giving him higher name recognition. A televised debate with Honda earlier this month helped, too.

"We’re living in a global economy," Khanna said early in the debate. "Changing. Intensely competitive. And yet, Congress seems to have no real leadership or ideas and is stuck in the past. Dysfunctional. Slow moving."

By implication, Khanna is suggesting that Honda lacks vision.

But Khanna’s political positions aren’t that different from Honda on everything from Social Security to health care.

Democrats make up 44 percent of the electorate in the district, so how does Khanna convince Democratic voters to turn an incumbent like Honda out of office?

Khanna's initial strategy stressed his ties to Silicon Valley, but that had limitations, according to Bill Whalen of Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"There’s more to the district than just Silicon Valley," Whalen says, "and there’s more to the district than just high-tech coolness. You ask the average voter in that congressional district how are they doing? Are they better off than they were four years ago, and I don’t think Marissa Mayer’s endorsement really matters that much."

Whalen, a former speech writer for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, says that to win, Khanna needs to win over folks who might not normally vote for a Democrat. That is: independents, undecideds, and Republicans. Like a registered Republican Khanna met in West San Jose while canvassing.

When Khanna asks the voter whether he's heard about the race, the man replies, "You can save it. I'm gonna vote for you."

That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it does sound like a vote. Internal polls from both camps show Khanna gaining ground in recent weeks. Khanna’s poll shows a dead heat, while Honda’s shows the incumbent holding a 15-point lead. We’ll all know for sure in a couple of weeks.

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