Rep. Ro Khanna talks about stumping for President Biden’s reelection, contentious congressional recount

In an election year when many progressives are struggling to get on board with four more years of President Joe Biden, Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna sees himself as a bridge within the Democratic Party.

The 47-year-old congressman, who ousted popular but aging eight-term incumbent Mike Honda in 2016, has quickly ascended to the forefront of the national political scene. Four years ago, he served as the national co-chair for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. Now, he’s taking on a similar role as a surrogate for Biden’s reelection campaign.

Khanna, who describes himself as a “pragmatic progressive,” acknowledges that the Democratic Party has internal divisions. There are those who want to move more toward the left, like Sanders, for example, while the party’s more moderate liberals back Biden.

He sees himself in the middle, trying to be a “uniform voice for the party.” It’s why he’s been traveling around the country trying to sway young progressives to vote for Biden at the ballot box in November — a feat he recognizes isn’t easy, especially among voters who are outraged over the president’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

Khanna, who has called for a permanent cease-fire, is planning to skip Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress next month.

“I have some credibility with young progressives given just my votes and my voice on the issue,” Khanna said about the war. “What I say to them is we need to organize to move the president, and we have moved the president where he stopped the 2,000-pound bombs, he’s called for a permanent cease-fire.”

Bob Shrum, the director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California, said Khanna is setting himself up to be a “major force” within the Democratic Party.

“He understands what’s at stake in this election and that’s why he’s out there,” Shrum said. “It’s not just about him, it’s about the whole idea of democracy and what Trump could do to it.”

Biden’s difficulty in appealing to progressives isn’t the only uphill battle the president is facing in the run-up to November. At 81 — the oldest American president — his age has increasingly become a talking point.

In his successful 2016 campaign for Honda’s seat, Khanna didn’t hold back in an ad saying the then 75-year-old incumbent, whom critics said was nodding off during meetings, had “been around too long.” Last year, Khanna became the first member of Congress to urge California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to step down as her health worsened following years of reports of her declining mental acuity.

But he doesn’t see age as an issue for the octogenarian president. The two situations are different, he said, contending Feinstein’s inability to do her job in her final months was “egregious.”

“It was like not having a senator,” Khanna said. “There was a sense that this was just a dereliction of a state being represented.”

There’s no comparison to Biden, he said.

“He’s engaging, he’s involved,” Khanna said. “There’s no sense that he isn’t doing his job, and he’s keeping a very rigorous schedule. If I thought that the president was skipping out on official meetings or not being present on the Hill or not being present in the international arena, then I would speak out too.”

Harmeet Dhillon, a Bay Area lawyer and former vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party, disagrees with Khanna’s assessment of Biden’s mental faculties.

“The issue is his physical and mental condition,” Dhillon said. “They seem from a casual observer to be consistently impaired.”

Dhillon added that Biden and Trump, who just turned 78 this month, are on “opposite ends of the spectrum.”

“I would call him sharper than I am,” she said of the former president.

Closer to home, Khanna has gotten involved in another high-profile election: the race to replace retiring Rep. Anna Eshoo in the 16th Congressional District.

State Assemblymember Evan Low of Cupertino and fellow Democrat and former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo are facing each other this November after a two-way tie for second between Low and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian was broken by a voter-requested recount.

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The recount, funded by a Super PAC and requested by a Biden delegate and former Liccardo mayoral staffer, caught Khanna’s attention in early April. In a social media post, he called it a “crass political ploy” and said that “a candidate wanting to overturn the will of the voters is undemocratic,” referencing the political connections between Liccardo and the recount requester.

In hindsight, Khanna, who is endorsing Low, said he “was probably carried away in that tweet.”

“What I don’t like is that some people have the opportunity through independent expenditures to get a recount and others don’t,” he said, as current state law doesn’t have an automatic recount provision. “That seems to me unfair because if someone like me had a close race, I would have the resources with all the people I know to get a recount funding and other people wouldn’t, and it just seems to be unfair in a democracy.”

Khanna said the decision of who to endorse was a difficult one as he figured Liccardo would run for Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s seat when she eventually retires. In the end though, Low picked up the phone to call him first.

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