In 1966, barely two years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by the House and Senate, a handful of intrepid candidates challenged pro–Vietnam War Democratic incumbents in party primaries. The most prominent of their number, Ramparts magazine editor Robert Scheer, took on California US Representative Jeffrey Cohelan, an otherwise liberal Democrat who refused to criticize Lyndon Johnson’s warmaking in southeast Asia.
Scheer won 45 percent of the vote in that year’s Democratic primary and went on to a distinguished career in journalism. But he also did something else. His campaign planted the seeds for a 1970 challenge to Cohelan by Ron Dellums, who dispatched the incumbent and went on to serve almost three decades in the House. Dellums was not the only antiwar challenger to defeat a Democratic incumbent that year. In New York, Bella Abzug upset seven-term incumbent Leonard Farbstein. In Massachusetts, a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry and Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School, both prepared campaigns against hawkish Democrat Phil Philbin, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Kerry stepped back and Drinan went on to beat the twenty-six-year incumbent in a September, 1970, Democratic primary.
The war in Iraq is different from the war in Vietnam. But as in the late 1960s and 1970s, antiwar candidates have begun to prepare primary challenges to Democratic incumbents who supported the October 2002 “blank check” resolution authorizing George Bush to order a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The most serious so far is that of Ro Khanna, a 27-year-old San Francisco attorney with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Yale, who is taking on twelve-term incumbent Tom Lantos in a heavily Democratic Bay Area district.
Lantos has a reasonably solid liberal record on domestic issues, and he generally wins high ratings from the AFL-CIO and groups such as Americans for Democratic Action. But it’s a different story on foreign-policy matters. Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, was one of the leading advocates in the House for the use-of-force resolution in 2002. He served as a pro-resolution floor manager and said it was his “privilege” to deliver eighty-one Democratic votes for the president. Last year, Lantos was a champion of the Bush Administration’s proposal to allocate another $87 billion to fund US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has, as well, been one of the House’s most consistent Democratic backers of the Patriot Act.
Khanna launched his challenge to Lantos in December, saying, “In March, Democrats in San Mateo County and San Francisco will have the opportunity to reject Bush’s flawed Iraq policy and his misguided war on our liberties, and to send someone to Congress who shares their own values.”
The question, then, was whether Khanna, a political newcomer, could mount a viable enough campaign against an entrenched incumbent to make the choice he promised a realistic option. Though Lantos remains the favorite going into Tuesday’s primary vote, Khanna has made a race of it. He has raised a respectable amount of money—close to $250,000 by mid-February—and attracted enough volunteers to run an energetic campaign that feels in the best sense like that of Howard Dean, whose presidential run Khanna supported.
The challenger was endorsed early on by the California Democratic Council, a coalition of grassroots Democratic groups across the state that had in the past backed Lantos. More recently, he has picked up strong support from two of San Francisco’s most prominent progressives, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a Democrat, and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, a Green who last year came within a few percentage points of being elected that city’s mayor. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is another Khanna enthusiast. “I live in the 12th Congressional District in California. We’re a pretty sensible (you might call us liberal) bunch,” Lessig, the author of The Future of Ideas, wrote in a recent entry on his popular weblog. “Over 80 percent oppose the war. Almost 70 percent oppose the Patriot Act. Yet our Congressman—a wonderful and amazing figure, Tom Lantos—doesn’t vote the way his district thinks. He has supported the war. He has supported the Patriot Act. I haven’t done this before, and I’m not going to do this much again, but this gap between who we are and how we are represented has led me to help Congressman Lantos’ opponent—Ro Khanna. Ro’s a bright, young, committed Democrat, committed to representing the views of his district.”
Khanna also has the backing of the region’s influential alternative weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which said in an editorial, “We’ve been saying for years that Rep. Tom Lantos needs a good challenge, and a bright, Yale University-educated 27-year-old lawyer named Ro Khanna is finally giving him one. Khanna—who would be the first person of Indian descent elected to Congress since the 1950s—is campaigning primarily on the issues of the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act. Lantos supported both; polls show a strong majority of the voters in this western San Francisco and northern peninsula district oppose both.”
The high level of support for Khanna has got the political establishment scared. The challenger has started taking hits for being a corporate lawyer and for fueling his campaign with money from Indian-American entrepreneurs who are not always the most progressive players. For the most part, the attacks are standard political cheap shots. But they could take a toll on a candidate who is relatively new to the district and, despite an energetic campaign, not nearly so well-known as the incumbent.
That said, Khanna has posed enough of a threat to force Lantos to spend a substantial chunk of his $1.5 million campaign fund. The incumbent has, as well, begun to talk about problems with the Patriot Act.
After taking a good deal of criticism from local media for failing to accept Khanna’s debate challenges, Lantos faced off Friday against Khanna and a third candidate, Maad Abu-Ghazalah. During the debate, Khanna said, “We have a chance to do something absolutely extraordinary in this election: to hold a congressman responsible based on his voting record. Mr. Lantos has had a distinguished career in public service, but his votes for the war and the Patriot Act don’t represent the will of this district.”
The extent to which Khanna’s campaign actually ends up holding Lantos responsible will be decided by the voters on Tuesday. Win or lose, however, Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond says, “Khanna has done what you would hope a challenger would do. He has forced the incumbent to come home, to answer questions about his votes on issues like the war and the Patriot Act. This is exactly what primaries are for.”