As a U.S. Senate candidate in California in 2010, Carly Fiorina advocated legislation that would grant legal rights to undocumented immigrants. Now, as the former tech CEO climbs in the polls and takes on Republican front-runner Donald Trump, her moderate positions on immigration reform could become a weakness in a race that has seen many GOP voters demand more border security and a tough stance against illegal immigration.
Fiorina soared into second place over the weekend after a successful performance at last week's debate, but her views appear to be largely unknown to many Republican voters. While Republican leaders have sought to win over Hispanic voters in recent years as the nation's electorate has become less white, conservative primary voters have refused to fall in line, instead backing candidates like Trump, who vowed to build border walls and kick out the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
During the second Republican debate -- hosted by CNN Wednesday night -- Fiorina took a measured and careful approach to how she answered questions about immigration. Largely avoiding the issue as a matter of policy, she navigated between attacking Trump and President Barack Obama, making no mention of her thoughts on what to actually do with the millions of immigrants currently in the country without legal documentation.
Fiorina has "a strategy of being vague on some of the issues and potentially allowing herself for room to maneuver down the road," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine. As she rises in the polls, "her positions will come under greater scrutiny, and she will be pushed to add more detail to her statement."
When asked for clarification of her immigration policies, the Fiorina campaign said that policy papers have not been released yet, but pointed to an "Ask Carly" section of her campaign website. Videos in that section showed Fiorina saying that the border needs to be secured immediately, that employer verification should be mandatory throughout the country and that those currently in the country illegally could potentially get a pathway to legal status. As president, Fiorina said she would not support a pathway to citizenship.
Fiorina has a somewhat mixed record on immigration reform. During her 2010 run for U.S. Senate in California against Sen. Barbara Boxer, Fiorina came out in favor of the so-called Dream Act, which would provide a path to permanent legal status in the country for millions of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Fiorina could also face criticism for seemingly supporting a controversial Arizona immigration law in 2012 that codified racial discrimination in the state.
It's no secret that Hispanic voters are going to play an increasingly important role in elections in coming cycles. The group is one of the youngest constituencies in the United States, and the number of eligible Hispanic voters is expected to double over just the next generation. Hispanic voters made up just 10 percent of the electorate in 2012, however that percentage is expected to balloon quickly. Latino voters are a diverse electorate -- just like any other voting bloc -- but among the issues they care about most passionately is immigration reform measures.
Republicans suffered huge losses "in 2012 at the presidential level," Ramakrishnan said. "It will be very difficult for Republicans to win Nevada, Virginia, Colorado [or] Florida...without moderating their stances on immigration. And, if you can't win those states, you're not going to win the presidency."
Republican parties in states where Latino voters will have the biggest impact are already looking to soften their approach to immigration reform to appeal to more moderate, independent voters. California GOP members voted Sunday to distance themselves from Trump's stances. Public support in general doesn't seem to align closely with Trump's immigration plans, either. A September CBS/New York Times poll of American voters showed that just 10 percent of voters supported a pathway to legal status but not a pathway to citizenship. A majority, 58 percent, supported a pathway to citizenship, and 27 percent wanted undocumented immigrants to be kicked out of the country entirely.
"The Republican party in California is a textbook case of what could happen to the national party if it pushes far right on immigration," Ramakrishnan said. "The national electorate is probably not going to change as quickly as the California electorate, but still what we saw in 2012 was a repudiation of hard-line conservative stances on immigration."
Fiorina has been rising in polls after strong debate performances in August and September. While she is currently in sixth place in averages of national polls from late August to mid-September, more recent snapshots of the electorate show her in a much stronger position. A CNN/ORC poll indicated Fiorina was in second place Monday nationally, 1 percent ahead of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and 9 percent behind Trump, who has 24 percent support.
"I think what will be interesting to see is if she gets pushed to talk more about immigration if she will stake out a stance that differentiates herself from Trump in a significant way," Ramakrishnan said. "Right now Trump has been the loudest and also the most specific on immigration, so I think the big question will be as Fiorina gets pushed to offer more specifics, what are the kinds of dimensions that will set herself apart?"