As Carly Fiorina gains increased media attention and ramps up her presidential campaign after her strong performance in the second Republican debate last week, she may still be struggling to overcome the obstacles that led to her defeat the only previous time she sought elected office.
While Fiorina has billed herself as an "outsider" candidate, she does have political experience -- she just wasn’t successful. Her 2010 campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in California saw fierce campaigning (she’s often remembered for the “demon sheep” ad) and pressure on Fiorina to defend her business record before the former Hewlett-Packard CEO eventually lost.
That one campaign does not make her a political insider like establishment candidates who have built careers in elected office, according to Republican strategists, but they say it could give Fiorina knowledge about her weak spots and where she’ll need to improve this time around.
David Merritt, a Republican adviser who worked for the presidential campaigns of Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson and John McCain, said Fiorina could build on the lessons she learned from running a tough Republican campaign in the typically Democratic state of California.
“Having run that campaign, she knows that a lot of the attacks Barbara Boxer made on her as a Senate candidate are still around,” Merritt said. “Chris Christie had it wrong when he said no one cares about your careers. When you have a record in the private sector, that has to be examined so it gives voters something to look at. It’s entirely appropriate for voters to look at to see if it was successful or not. Having business experience is a plus, but if that was not successful, then it might be questioned.”
During her 2010 campaign, Fiorina was hit hard by ads from Boxer that criticized her laying off of 30,000 employees at Hewlett-Packard, as well as Fiorina’s own firing when the company's stock price dropped.
“The entire rationale for Carly Fiorina’s candidacy in 2010 and her candidacy today is her record at HP,” said Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s longtime campaign manager. “Some of her personal story is appealing to voters, or it was then. … But when they saw her record, they were disgusted.”
Fiorina ultimately lost to Boxer by 42 to 52 percent in what was a big year for Republicans nationally. But in heavily Democratic California, some strategists have said Fiorina's campaign was probably as competitive as it could have been.
Fiorina’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. At the Republican debate last week, she used her credentials as a CEO to tell voters that she knows how to be a leader.
“Despite those difficult times, we doubled the size of the company, we quadrupled its top-line growth rate, we quadrupled its cash flow, we tripled its rate of innovation,” she said last Wednesday. “I was a terrific CEO; the board was dysfunctional.”
Some strategists point to her strong communication skills in the debate and in interviews, saying she is doing a better job of explaining her record now than she did in 2010.
“She’s been doing much better,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign. “But herein lies the problem that Carly has. She is trying to explain this to a mass audience, and that is very difficult. ... What she’s talking about takes a little bit of business acumen. Everyone wants business experience, but it’s tough to explain that in soundbites.”
Beyond her record, Fiorina also needs to increase her campaign staff now that she is drawing more attention than ever. And as many candidates do, she must convince voters that she is likable in addition to being a competent leader.
Fiorina is campaigning in South Carolina this week, where she has multiple town halls and meet-and-greets scheduled to talk to voters.
“If she can continue to demonstrate authenticity in other aspects of her life, which she’s been doing with her cancer story and her daughter [her stepdaughter died after a struggle with drug addiction], then people might empathize and will believe her more” about her business record, O’Connell said.
The building of campaign infrastructure remains to be seen. Deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores declined to talk to the Washington Post Tuesday about the campaign’s efforts to grow in states like South Carolina.
So far, Fiorina has trailed her competitors in fundraising, which could prove problematic as her campaign will need to expand in the coming months. In her 2010 Senate race, she raised far less money than Boxer, and came under fire this year when some of her strategists and vendors from 2010 said that the candidate had taken four years to pay them for their work.
Still, there are several months left before the first primaries, and if Fiorina continues to gain momentum, she may not need to worry about repeating her funding problems from her first race.
“She has a talented group of people around her and can get that up and running pretty quickly,” Merritt said of Fiorina’s campaign infrastructure. “Now that she’s getting more of the spotlight, she does have the opportunity to expand into areas that she hadn’t thus far because she didn’t have the resources.”