Rep. Ro Khanna just clarified the contours of California’s Senate race — and a potential future national campaign.
By confirming he would not seek the Senate seat Sen. Dianne Feinstein is vacating, Khanna avoided a further progressive split while buoying Rep. Barbara Lee with an endorsement. He also decided to keep his House seat and keep his options open for the future, reflecting a widespread belief that his sights are on the White House.
The Silicon Valley Democrat would have faced a narrow path to victory. Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee had all declared months earlier, giving them a long head start in which to tout endorsements, raise funds and meet voters. Khanna’s receded further with each week he was absent from that early scrum.
Beyond the timing, simple math would have posed a challenge. Porter, Lee and Schiff are all vying for the same finite pool of Democratic and independent votes as they jostle to make it out of the primary. Two Democrats could advance under California’s primary system, which allows the top two vote-getters to move on to the general.
Progressives are already wary of Lee and Porter dividing the left-leaning vote in a way that locks both Congressional Progressive Caucus members out of the top two, allowing the more-centrist Schiff to advance and face a likely-doomed Republican in the general (the GOP has not yet fielded a candidate).
Khanna could have further fractured the progressive vote given his standing among California’s substantial bloc of Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters. Khanna co-chaired Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign and said on Sunday that he had heard “enthusiasm from Bernie folks.”
“If Khanna had gotten in the race, progressives risked splitting the vote three ways and giving Schiff a boost,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic consultant who worked for former Sen. Barbara Boxer. “While Schiff is a progressive by most measures, progressive activists have been backing Porter or Lee.”
Now, some of that Sanders support could flow toward Lee, whom Khanna endorsed as he bowed out. Lee’s camp is counting on an energized progressive base vaulting the East Bay fixture into the top two.
“We need a strong anti-war senator, and she will play that role,” Khanna said Sunday morning on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Khanna’s deep Silicon Valley ties could make him a conduit to powerful donors and help Lee make up a steep cash-on-hand deficit compared to Schiff and Porter, both of whom are prolific fundraisers.
“Congressman Khanna’s endorsement is a much-needed boost in these early days of the race, but Rep. Lee still has a steep climb ahead,” consultant Anna Bahr, who worked for Sanders’ 2020 California campaign, said in a text message. “It won’t be easy to get on level footing with the front-runners in the race.”
Few doubt Khanna’s ambition. He primaried another Democrat to win his spot in Congress. He has become a television fixture who touts a progressive agenda while seeking to export Silicon Valley’s economic might to other parts of the country, making a case for forging inroads beyond coastal blue bastions. He is a stalwart Sanders supporter who is comfortable hobnobbing with deep-pocketed tech libertarians.
This marks the second time Khanna flirted with a Senate run but decided against it; he also chose not to challenge Sen. Alex Padilla when the recently appointed senator was running for a full term. Khanna said on Sunday he was bowing out of contention in part because “the most exciting place to advance bold and progressive policy right now is in the House.”
He will remain there rather than forfeiting a spot in Congress for a long-shot Senate bid. But that doesn’t mean Khanna intends to stay in the House forever. Some Sanders backers sought to draft Khanna to run in 2024 should President Joe Biden not seek a second term.
While Khanna has steadfastly supported Biden, he is widely seen as a future presidential contender. That prospect would diminish if he were to give up his House seat for a Senate run and fall short, depriving himself of a platform for policymaking, public visibility, and fundraising.
“If Ro Khanna goes all-out for Barbara Lee and she makes it into the runoff, that could be a big proof point for him as he pursues other things,” Kapolczynski said. “That he helped elected the only Black woman in the Senate is a pretty good talking point if you have national ambitions.”
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