The Fiorina Senate Rollout Begins

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Carly Fiorina, sidelined for months by breast cancer surgery last March, is apparently back on the campaign trail, quietly gathering support for a run at veteran Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer next year.

While the former Hewlett-Packard CEO isn’t talking, an aide told Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times this week that Fiorina is talking to GOP officials around the state, “seeking their advice, their counsel, their prospective and their political support.’’

Fiorina should also be asking for their prayers, because she’s going to need plenty of divine assistance if she decides to take on Boxer.

Get ready for a wave of stories about Fiorina’s political future, as her aides dole out occasional tidbits of information in an effort to keep a wave of interest building for the first-time candidate.

All those stories will probably mention a Field Poll last March that showed only 42 percent of California voters inclined to re-elect Boxer to a fourth term while 43 percent didn’t particularly want to send her back to Washington.

They’ll also suggest that as a wealthy woman with a high-profile background in the tech world, Fiorina will present a stronger challenge than Boxer has ever faced before.
Boxer is too liberal for California, Republicans will say, and this is the year voters will prove it.

Well, as Damon Runyon said, “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.’’

In California elections, you bet against Boxer at your risk. The state’s political landscape is littered with the bodies of challengers who thought the former Marin County resident was too liberal, too shrill, too pugnacious and just too damn Democratic to stay in office.

Still, Boxer hasn’t lost an election since her first one, a 1972 run for the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She won that seat four years later and never looked back.

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. She barely hung on to beat Bruce Herschensohn, a Los Angeles television commentator in her first Senate race in 1992 and needed a late surge to defeat state Treasurer Matt Fong in 1998.

Boxer’s voter approval rate typically falls below the golden 50 percent mark, which keeps GOP hopes alive.

The problem for Republicans, though, is that off-year polls match Boxer against voters’ own expectations, not actual candidates. When voters are asked, as they were in the March Field Poll, whether they want to see Boxer re-elected, they can pit her in their minds against some magic Republican who is everything they ever wanted in a candidate.

But when the campaign starts, it’s Boxer against a real person, warts and all. And Boxer is not only California’s best campaigner, she’s also not at all afraid to get down and dirty with a challenger.

If Fiorina does get in, she’s going to learn quickly that California politics isn’t about thinking great thoughts and making reasoned arguments. It’s a contact sport and Boxer is never better than when she’s on the attack.

Fiorina got a taste of that during last year’s presidential campaign, when she was an adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain. The Obama campaign put out a TV ad aimed directly at her and the $42 million golden parachute she received after she was fired as H-P’s CEO in 2005.

During her final years at the high-tech giant, Fiorina laid off about 20,000 workers, many of them in California, and saw the company’s stock price tank. If Fiorina runs, that information will fuel plenty of 30-second TV spots.

Fiorina does have a lot to offer California Republicans. She’s wealthy enough to help finance her campaign, is a woman in a party woefully short of female candidates and will draw the type of nationwide notice to the race that Irvine Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who’s running in the GOP primary, can’t bring.

What the party can’t afford is a repeat of the 2004 embarrassment, when Boxer buried former Secretary of State Bill Jones, 58 percent to 38 percent. Or, even worse, a rerun of 2006, when the only person the Republicans could find to challenge Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was a long-retired legislator, Dick Mountjoy, who raised less than $200,000 to Feinstein’s $12 million.

When Fiorina was making the rounds at the state Republican convention in Sacramento last February, she showed she could give a good speech, banter with the party’s rank-and-file and attract plenty of media interest. That may be all she needs to win the GOP primary. A November face-off with Boxer, though, is another question altogether.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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