Vanila Singh

Mar 052014

The Congressional races in CD 15 (most of southern Alameda county) and CD 17 (Fremont/Newark & northern Santa Clara county) have suddenly become much more interesting with the addition of bonafide Republican candidates.

In CD 15, State Senator Ellen Corbett has issued a challenge to incumbent Eric Swalwell from the left.  Swalwell ran against long-time Congressman Pete Stark in 2012 by presenting a clear challenge from the right and rallying Republican votes.  He was helped in that endeavor by the lack of a Republican candidate in the race.  Since then, Swalwell has turned to the Democratic center.  He’s become an assistant minority whip and has voted with minority leader Pelosi in all but one or two occasions.  He was recently endorsed by President Obama.

The Republicans in his district, who have long felt betrayed by Swalwell’s move leftward, have now put out one of their own to challenge him.  Hugh Bussell, a Livermore resident and Vice Chair of the Alameda County GOP, pulled papers to run against Swalwell yesterday.

It’s been clear for a while that Corbett’s best hope from defeating Swalwell would be in the June elections, if a Republican challenger joined the fray.  The district has roughly 40% Republican voters, so it’s likely that a serious Republican candidate will advance to the November general elections. Of the two Democrats, conventional wisdom would have Swalwell advancing.  Not only is he the incumbent, but he has been a prolific fundraiser – with over $1M in contributions vs. Corbett’s $200K -; he’s also an energetic campaigner and master of social media.   However, Swalwell was only able to garner about a quarter of the Democratic vote in 2012.  He has not released poll numbers showing how he’s doing in the race, but the fact that he is so vehemently seeking the Democratic endorsement – he not only sought Obama’s endorsement but is also paying delegates to go to the Democratic Convention to vote to endorse him -, suggests he’s actually worried.   Recent reports that he hired the daughter of a big campaign-contributor for a taxpayer-funded job, might hurt him with Democratic voters tired of  corruption and fundraising scandals in their party.

Meanwhile, the race for CD 17 appears to be getting crowded – and more interesting.  In addition to Mike Honda and Ro Khanna, six candidates have pulled papers to run in the race.

Republican anesthesiology professor Vanila Singh announced her run earlier this year and has already raised over $100K.   A member of a Hindu nationalist organization, Singh was recruited to run to put pressure on fellow Indian-American Ro Khanna to support giving Gujarati minister Narendra Modi a visa to visit the United States.  While Khanna has remained steadfast on his refusal to support Modi, Singh’s efforts at disrupting the election seem to have prompted another Indian-American candidate, Vinesh Singh Rathore, to enter the race.  Rathore, a Google attorney who is registered (or was until recently) as a “declined to state”, already paid the $1740 filing.

Just yesterday, Sony recruiter Joel VanLandingham added his name to the list of candidates hoping to defeat Honda by paying the $1740 filing fee.  While I haven’t yet determined what is VanLandingham’s party registration, his Facebook feed suggests he holds strong conservative views and is likely a Republican.  Another Republican, Dave Chapman, who last challenged Ana Eshoo for CD 18 in 2012, has also pulled papers on the CD 17 race as has Mark Gonzales, a Republican patent agent from Newark.

Finally, Democrat Geby E. Espinosa has pulled papers to run for CD 17, in addition to Governor, Secretary of State and Insurance Commissioner in this election, and has run for numerous offices in the past.

While Rathore’s entrance into the race is not necessarily good news for Khanna – he may take some votes away from Vanila Singh, due to the name confusion between the two, but he might also take some third party votes from Khanna -, having a Republican join Vanila Singh in the race would help him tremendously.  In a recent  poll, Singh garnered 29% of the vote, but only when voters were told she was a Republican.  That’s about the same percentage that the Republican candidate got in the June 2012 election.  Multiple Republican candidates in the race would help split that portion of the vote, allowing Khanna to easily make it past the primary.

There is no certainty as to who the actual candidates will be in either race until they complete their filings.  In CD 15, only Eric Swalwell has done so.  In CD 17, Ro Khanna and Mike Honda seem to be the only ones to do so.

Mar 022014
Congressman Mike Honda

Congressman Mike Honda

Congressman Mike Honda just released a new poll, commissioned on his behalf by Democracy for America.  His campaign quickly touted poll numbers that show Honda beating Ro Khanna by around 20 points in a variety of scenarios.  However, a close look at the numbers actually suggests that Honda is very vulnerable to losing the election.

The poll is actually four different polls (see below for results), each with one question.  In the first instance, voters were asked whether they would vote for Democrat Mike Honda, Democrat Ro Khanna or Republican Vanila Singh.   In the second poll, voters were asked the same question, without specifying the party affiliation of the candidates.  The third poll matches Democrat Mike Honda vs. Democrat Ro Khanna while the fourth matches Democrat Mike Honda vs. Republican Vanila Singh.  The polls have a relatively high margin of error, between 4.4% and 6.4%.

In both instances where Vanila Singh was identified as a Republican, she got about 30% of the vote.   When Singh wasn’t identified as a Republican, she only commanded 11% of the vote (which might indicate gender bias in the election).  About 28% of the voters in the CD 17 2012 open primary voted for the Republican candidate.  Taking into account the margin of error in the polls and the fact that Singh has not started campaigning, and therefore is unlikely to have much name recognition so far, this means that Singh is basically attracting the full Republican vote.

Ro Khanna

Ro Khanna

Khanna, meanwhile, receives about 26% of the vote in a 3-person match, regardless of whether he is identified as a Democrat or not.  This is up from the 5% he received in a March 2013 poll commissioned by Honda, and the 15% he was getting in an August 2013 poll, also by Democracy for America.  Khanna’s numbers have been steadily rising, most likely as the result of the massive ground operations that his campaign has been conducting in the last year.  Knocking on doors is expensive and time consuming, but considered the best way to get firm voter support.

According to the poll, when Honda and Khanna are matched only against each other, as they’re likely to be for the general election, Honda gets 61% of the vote against Khanna’s 39%.  What this means, is that at this stage in the campaign, the Republican vote is split down the middle between the two Democratic candidates (Honda gets a couple of more points, but within the margin of error).  As of now, Republicans are not expressing a preference for Khanna.  This both brings light as to what Khanna’s strategy has been so far – concentrate in converting as many Democratic voters as possible through personal interactions – and suggests what his path to victory for the November General elections is: continue converting Democrats plus converting the full Republican vote to himself.  Given that he still has about $2M in the bank, and there is no indication he has lost the ability to raise more, he has the tools to get there.

First, of course, he has to get past the June primary.  The poll numbers put him at a statistical dead even with Singh.  But that is only as long as Singh is the only Republican candidate in the race.  If another Republican candidate runs, chances are that they will split the Republican vote.   There seems to be a high likelihood that this will indeed happen.

In addition to Honda, Khanna and Singh, four candidates have pulled papers to run for the CD 17 race.   Geby E Espinosa, a Democrat, seems to be a perennial candidate. He also pulled papers to run for Governor, Secretary of State and Insurance Commissioner in this election, and has run for numerous offices in the past.   Dave Chapman ran as a Republican against Ana Eshoo in CD 18 in 2012.  The Mark Gonzales who pulled papers in Alameda County, is likely to be Newark patent agent Mark James Gonzales, a registered Republican.  Finally, Vinesh Singh Rathore has already paid the $1740 filing fee to run on this race.  Now an attorney with Google, Singh Rathore was an associate in the Virgina’s office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati until 2010; Ro Khanna works at the firm’s Palo Alto office.  Singh Rathore is registered as a Declined to State.

Once Khanna gets past June, he will still have the challenge of attracting the Republican votes without alienating the Democratic voters whom already backed him.  To do so, he is positioning himself as a pragmatist Democrat, and one that will be able to work with both parties.  While both campaigns have been taking stabs at each other, Khanna’s strategy may well allow him to win without waging a hard core negative campaign on the incumbent.  That may very well be a first.

NEW CA-17 polling via Public Policy Polling (PPP) on behalf of Democracy for America (Feb. 13-16, 2014):

If the election for U.S. Congress were held today, and the choices were Democrat Ro Khanna, Republican Vanila Singh, or Democrat Mike Honda, for whom would you vote?
Ro Khanna………………………………………………26%
Vanila Singh…………………………………………….29%
Mike Honda…………………………………………….. 45%
(Asked of 270 CA-17 voters – MOE 6%)

If the election for U.S. Congress were held today, and the choices were Ro Khanna, Vanila Singh, and Mike Honda, for whom would you vote?
Ro Khanna ……………………………………………… 27%
Vanila Singh ……………………………………………. 11%
Mike Honda…………………………………………….. 62%
(Asked of 235 CA-17 voters – MOE 6.4% )

If the election for U.S. Congress were held today, and the choices were Democrat Ro Khanna and Democrat Mike Honda, for whom would you vote?
Ro Khanna………………………………………………39%
Mike Honda…………………………………………….. 61%
(Asked of 505 CA-17 voters – MOE 4.4% )

If the election for U.S. Congress were held today, and the choices were Republican Vanila Singh and Democrat Mike Honda, for whom would you vote?
Vanila Singh ……………………………………………. 31%
Mike Honda…………………………………………….. 69%
(Asked of 505 CA-17 voters – MOE 4.4% )

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mike Honda is handling his job as U.S. Congressman?
Approve …………………………………………………. 61%
Disapprove……………………………………………… 31%
No opinion………………………………………………. 8%
(Asked of 505 CA-17 voters – MOE 4.4% )

Note: This article was edited to note Vinesh Singh Rathore’s full name and party affiliation.

Jan 182014
Dr. Vanila Singh

Dr. Vanila Singh

Vanila Singh Runs for Congress to Get US Visa for Human Rights Abuser

Religious – and foreign – politics have found their way into an American congressional race, but in a completely different manner to what we are used to.  There are no Christian fundamentalists running for California’s congressional district 17, nobody pontificating against abortion or gay marriage or promising to bring prayer back to the classrooms.   Instead, we’ll be treated to two competing understandings of Hinduism.  For Democratic candidate Ro Khanna, Hinduism is one more aspect of his cultural identity which informs, rather than defines, his vision of the state as secular and pluralistic.  For newcomer and potential spoiler Republican candidate Vanila Singh, on the other hand,  Hinduism appears to be the cornerstone of her political identity.   For the incumbent, embattled liberal Congressman Mike Honda, a man of indeterminate religious beliefs, Singh’s entrance in the race cannot come at a better time.

To the average American, even the average non-South Asian voter in CD 17, the name Narendra Modi may not immediately ring a bell.   But this Gujarati politician and self-described Hindu nationalist is posed to become the next Prime Minister of India – and the main sideshow attraction in the CD17 race.   Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat during the violent 2002 riots which left over 2,000 Muslims dead, including children burnt alive.  Modi’s administration has been accused by human rights organizations and researchers,  not only of supporting the violence, but of planning it and then working diligently to derail any possibility of justice.

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

The Gujarati riots incensed human rights activists and supporters of religious freedom worldwide so when Modi announced, in 2005, that the would visit the United States for a conference, a coalition of  activists and evangelicals formed to lobby the State Department to deny him a visa.  They obtained the support of many members of Congress and were eventually successful.  While the visa denial may seem like a small gesture, it incensed Modi and his supporters, who have since been working to get the US government to change its stand.

One of Modi’s biggest and richest backers in the US, is the Chicago-based Punjabi tycoon Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar.  Kumar has set out to get that visa for Modi and is not afraid to use his money – and that of other Indian nationalists in the US – to do it.  He co-founded a Super PAC to recruit and fund Republican candidates that support a “pro-India platform”, the main element of which is helping Modi get a US visa.  Kumar told India West that he approached Singh due to her volunteer work with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a pro-Modi group with Hindu-supremacist links.   Singh apparently accepted, changed her voter registration from “declined to state” to Republican, and filed.

With 435 districts to chose from, one may wonder why Kumar chose to focus on a district that is not only heavily Democratic, but which already has a Hindu candidate.  Not only does a Republican have no chance to get elected – the Republican candidate only got about 27% of the vote in the 2012 general election -, but Singh’s candidacy jeopardizes Ro Khanna’s chances of winning.  While Khanna is not a supporter of Modi – he says he’s committed to both secularism and pluralism -, he has taken a hands-off approach on this matter and is willing to defer to the State Department’s decision.  Honda, meanwhile, has lobbied the State Department to make sure that Modi is continued to be denied a visa.  Surely, Kumar is doing himself no favors by helping Honda win this race.

Shalabh Kumar

Shalabh Kumar

Kumar’s strategy, however, seems to be more devious.  He told India West that his Super-PAC would have backed Khanna if Khanna had been an independent “free of Pelosi’s whip” and willing to sign on to the “pro-India” agenda mentioned above.  We can surmise that there were conversations on this issue between Kumar and Khanna that did not leave the former satisfied.    Indeed, Khanna’s fundraising success along a broad donor base and his commitment to not accept contributions from PACs, makes him uniquely immune to the promises/threats of deep pocket special interests like Kumar.  Clearly, another strategy was in order.

As Kumar told India West, “it’s a very challenging formula to take down Mike Honda without active Republican support.”  Indeed, while CD 17 is a new district for Honda, he benefits from a considerable incumbent advantage, which Khanna can only overcome by receiving at least some Republican and moderate votes.  A poll conducted last August by a pro-Honda group, had Honda receiving 49% of the total vote.  That was less than the 57%  a different poll gave him in March, but still considerably higher than the 15% Khanna had.  While Khanna will have had a full year of campaigning under his belt by the time the June primaries hit this year, if Singh is able to garner the great majority of the Republican vote, in addition to the likely limited Hindu fundamentalist vote, her candidacy might actually threaten Khanna’s ability to get the second-highest percentage of votes in June and make it to the general election in November.  Khanna could innoculate himself somewhat against this danger by encouraging another Republican to run – hoping that will split the Republican vote -, but Kumar’s deep pockets, added to those of other Hindu nationalists in Singh’s circle, will give Singh a considerable advantage.  If nothing else, Singh’s candidacy can take time and resources away from Khanna’s mission of explaining why he’s a better choice to Mike Honda.

While Singh’s entrance into the race is problematic in that it subverts American democracy, Kumar’s actions underline the pernicious effects of PACs in American elections.  Unwittingly, they also serve to test Khanna’s moral core and his quality as a candidate in a way that is seldom possible for newcomers.  If Khanna stands firm and still wins, he will go to Washington as a less naive Mr. Smith, but one with as much integrity.

Note: This article has been edited for clarity.