The $50 Million Potential of the 'First True Silicon Valley Candidate'

(Photo: AP/Ben Margot)

Ro Khanna, Democratic candidate for U.S. Representative from California's 17th District, during a break in the California Democrats State Convention Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. 

One of the most competitive House races this Tuesday is between two Silicon Valley Democrats—Mike Honda, a progressive incumbent, and Rohit “Ro” Khanna, a start-up-style challenger who has become the darling of the tech industry. Khanna has frequently been portrayed as a smart, young candidate in the same vein as President Barack Obama, and an emerging leader who can bring the Democratic Party boldly into the 21st century.

But behind the scenes, Khanna’s candidacy has been pitched to party power-brokers as a way for Democrats to capture a highly lucrative stable of wealthy tech donors that is primed to become a cornerstone of the party’s fundraising base—so long as attacks from party progressives doesn’t scare them into the eager arms of the Republican Party.

“Ro Khanna is the first true Silicon Valley candidate,” Khanna’s campaign chairman Steve Spinner wrote in an email to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta last spring, apparently following up on an in-person meeting with Podesta, according to newly released hacked emails put out by Wikileaks. Khanna has “received the support of over 600 technology and financial leaders, more than six times what President Obama received in 2012,” Spinner added, before listing off Silicon Valley titans like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, tech’s original mega-donor John Doerr, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, and the now-toxic Trump supporter Peter Thiel.

“In this cycle, Ro’s tech and South Asian donors can be a source of at least $50 million for the Democratic Party in national races,” Spinner continued. “Over 70% of Ro’s donors were first time donors, and many will be inspired to give big once Ro wins (or earlier if we can convince Honda to retire & pass the baton to Ro).” Spinner first got involved in politics as a savvy bundler for Obama in 2008 and has since become one of the most influential parts of the Silicon Valley money machine.

Spinner aggressively pursued an endorsement—or more subtle shows of support—from Hillary Clinton, and even pitched Podesta on the idea of her attending Khanna’s wedding in Cleveland. And though the endorsement never came, the emails provide a window into how Spinner, an influential member of the tech community, saw the lure of Khanna’s wealthy donor base for a national candidate like Clinton.

Indeed, Silicon Valley’s role as a critical Democratic donor base has grown in recent election cycles to rival the political clout of Hollywood and Wall Street. Clinton made several stops on the Bay area fundraising circuit over the summer and has almost entirely captured the tech industry’s political and financial support. Nearly 99 percent of donations in Silicon Valley have gone to Clinton, according to FiveThirtyEight, bringing in well over $100 million to her campaign.

Thanks to California’s top-two primary system, Khanna, a Democrat and former trade official in the Obama administration, is challenging longtime progressive Mike Honda for his seat in California’s 17th Congressional District, which is the only majority-Asian American district on the mainland, and includes the Silicon Valley headquarters of Apple, Tesla, Yahoo, and eBay. He challenged Honda in 2014, too, running as the candidate of the tech industry and raking in huge contributions from big donors. Khanna lost by just a few percentage points.

This time around, he’s de-emphasized his considerable tech support—the list of endorsements on his campaign page puts his labor union support ahead of the long list of tech supporters—and placed more of a focus on local issues. He’s even tapped into the Bernie-style populist message—boasting that he takes no PAC money—and has tried to convince voters that he is a political outsider with fresh ideas, while Honda is a relic of the old guard. Obama endorsed Honda in 2014, but he has stayed out of the fray this time around, perhaps in part because Honda is currently the target of an ethics investigation over whether his congressional staff worked on his campaign while on the job. Khanna also managed to pull in an October endorsement from former President Jimmy Carter—Carter’s sole endorsement in this cycle, save for Hillary Clinton. Khanna’s message may be working: He beat Honda by a few thousand votes in the primary and now has Honda on the ropes heading into the general election.

Despite his strategic messaging shift, there’s no doubt that Khanna is still the Valley’s golden boy. He has pulled in nearly $3.5 million, with 99 percent of that coming from big donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. His top contributors are employed by tech giants like Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, as well as Salesforce, Facebook, and Oracle, along with several top tech law firms and venture capital outlets. Meanwhile, most of Honda’s money has come from labor unions and liberal PACs.  

After Khanna announced last year that he was challenging Honda again, the incumbent went on the offensive, attacking Khanna for his past support from controversial donors like Thiel, Marc Leder (who hosted Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” fundraiser), and Texas energy investor (formerly of Enron) John Arnold, who poured hundreds of thousands into a supportive super PAC. Khanna’s campaign was livid, arguing that the attack ads from Honda, a Japanese American who lived in an internment camp, played to racial stereotypes of South Asian Americans. Honda’s campaign has pushed back against those accusations, denying there is any racial component. 

In his emails, Spinner not-so-subtly warned Podesta that attacks from Honda could startle the tech community and slow tech’s spigot of money flowing into Clinton’s campaign. He urged Podesta to use his influence to pressure Honda to step aside or at least lay off the attacks.

Clinton’s campaign would not verify the authenticity of the emails. Neither Spinner nor Khanna’s campaign responded to requests for comment. 

“Honda’s slash and burn campaign tactics are hurting the Democratic Party with the tech community at a time when Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senator Rand Paul, and Governor Jeb Bush are out in Silicon Valley every few months courting the community. Many of Ro’s tech supporters have been deeply offended by Honda’s tactics,” Spinner wrote.  

A few weeks later, on June 1, 2015, Podesta forwarded to Spinner a Honda campaign email that attacked Khanna’s donors, saying “At it again.” Spinner complained, “John, every time Honda attacks Ro's tech and south asian supporters it has a dampening effect on fundraising for Hillary and other Dem candidates. This is madness and political malpractice of the Party to allow this to continue ... on a personal level, I'd really like to not have to focus on this race and thus be able to dedicate all my political volunteer leadership energies to Hillary”—though as Khanna’s campaign chairman, it’s hard to imagine how that could happen. Spinner and his wife are major bundlers for Clinton.

Two days later, Spinner forwarded to Podesta an article about Republican campaigns courting tech donors and wrote, “These tech donors don't feel like they have a home in either party and we risk losing them especially with the type of attacks Honda is launching. I know you get this and care about the future funding base for our party.”

Apparently, however, neither Podesta nor the Clinton campaign, even if they did care, thought that intervening in this Democrat-versus-Democrat race was a good idea. So far as we and Wikileaks know, they stayed resolutely neutral.  

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