Can Silicon Valley congressman win U.S. Senate seat?
Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna speaks to a constituent at a town hall in San Jose in this file photo.

    South Bay Congressman Ro Khanna could have a tough fight competing against high-profile candidates in the 2024 U.S. Senate race. He will need money and big-name backing to come out on top.

    If Khanna, who represents California’s 17th Congressional District, which includes Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Milpitas, Newark, Fremont and parts of San Jose, decides to run for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat, it won’t be easy, political observers said.

    Two prominent candidates are already in the race: Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, both with strong name recognition. Schiff has represented the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, including Pasadena, Glendale and Burbank, since 2001. Porter, who has been in office since 2019, serves the Orange County area, with large portions of Anaheim and Laguna Niguel.

    Khanna, who has been in office since 2017, told San José Spotlight he will make a decision on whether to run by mid-April.

    “I’ve had a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters and progressives in California reach out to me and encourage me to take a serious look at the race. It’s an honor to have them think of me, and I am considering all my options,” Khanna told San José Spotlight. “I have not made a final decision yet.”

    Khanna said if he jumps into the race, his campaign will be centered on championing progressive policies that include Medicare for All, child care at $10 a day and free public college.

    “What happens in California sets the stage for the rest of the country,” he added.

    Dan Schnur, professor at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, said Khanna has two strengths: He can raise money and his connections to former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

    “He’s demonstrated an ability to raise a great deal of money for his congressional races, and there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t be able to do the same in a statewide campaign,” Schnur told San José Spotlight. “But if he can run with Sanders, with either a formal endorsement or have some stamp of approval from Sanders, that’s going to elevate him tremendously.”

    He said while Khanna has strong name recognition in the Bay Area, he needs to increase his statewide presence, especially in Southern California where Schiff and Porter are well known. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said she will endorse Schiff if Feinstein doesn’t run. Porter’s latest ad features former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which raises her profile, Schnur said. If Khanna only runs against Schiff and Porter, that may be to his benefit because it would split the votes in Southern California, he added.

    While other names are being floated for the seat, Schnur said the biggest threat to Khanna’s potential candidacy is whether Rep. Barbara Lee from Oakland joins the race for Feinstein’s seat.

    “It would be surprising for Khanna to run if Lee were in the race,” Schnur said. “It’d be just as surprising if he didn’t run, if Lee weren’t.”

    Khanna said Lee’s desire to run is certainly a consideration for his potential candidacy.

    “I have a lot of respect for Barbara Lee. She’s been a courageous anti-war voice in Congress, and I think it would be meaningful for California to have a Black woman representing the state in the Senate,” Khanna told San José Spotlight. “I will certainly take her decision into consideration.”

    Retired San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston said Khanna will have to ramp up his fundraising to compete with Schiff, who’s raised more than $20 million, according to Open Secrets. Porter has raised $7 million to date, and Khanna has raised $5 million.

    Gerston said Khanna’s Indian heritage gives him an advantage. The Indian community has been gaining political power, but Porter and Lee will also have advantages because California voters tend to support women candidates. Schiff could have the most name recognition because of his work on former President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings, Gerston said.

    “But don’t forget, Khanna’s also had plenty of name recognition with impeachment hearings and events like this,” Gerston told San José Spotlight. “So there’s a lot going on here and it’s exciting. This state produces quality candidates and that is what voters have before them.”

    Schnur said the question for California voters is going to be what type of progressivism they prefer.

    “If Khanna and Lee ran we could have a primary campaign out here that is essentially between Bernie Sanders (Khanna) and Elizabeth Warren (Porter) and Joe Biden (Schiff) and Barack Obama (Lee),” Schnur said. “There’s no way to predict who would win. But we could have a Senate race that breaks down along similar lines politically.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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