Ex-Tech CEOs Fiorina, Whitman See Messages Fall on Deaf Ears in California
High-profile business backgrounds, hundreds of millions of dollars and a wave of voter discontent that swept dozens of Republicans into national offices could not help Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina capture the gubernatorial or Senate seats they sought in California.
Both of the former high-tech executives lost their political bids during the Nov. 2 elections, undone in large part by their attempts to push a strong conservative message in a state that bends staunchly left. They also brought a resume that lacked any real political experience against longtime veterans on both the state and national political scenes, and according to some pundits, their business backgrounds hurt them at a time when voters mired in a historic recession and jobless rates have a high level of distrust of corporations.
Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, ran a high-profile campaign against longtime U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, an unabashed liberal Democrat who unlike many others in her party embraced President Barack Obama during the race. Fiorina came up short, losing to Boxer by about 52-43 percent. She finally conceded the race midmorning Pacific time Nov. 3.
For her part, Whitman, who reportedly spent about $140 million of her own money in her failed bid for the governor's office, lost 54-41 percent to Democrat Jerry Brown, the attorney general who served as California's governor from 1975 to 1983.
In September 2009, Mark Petracca, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine, said in an interview with eWEEK that a challenge facing both Fiorina and Whitman-and any statewide Republican candidate, for that matter-was navigating through the California GOP waters. The party is controlled by strong conservatives, so winning the primaries calls for espousing right-wing views. However, the state-which has 2.4 million more Democrats than Republicans-leans hard to the left, and to take a statewide office, both Fiorina and Whitman need to steer their post-primary messages back to the middle.
For example, during the primary race, Fiorina embraced the endorsement of Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, but when the former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate came to the state during the race against Brown, Fiorina didn't attend, reportedly saying she had another commitment.
In the end, neither Whitman nor Fiorina, who spent $6.5 million of her own money on the campaign, was able to break through the Democratic lines with their mainstream Republican messages on such social issues as immigration, a tough play in a left-leaning state with a large and growing Latino community.
"It's very hard to win in the state of California with the orthodox conservative positions that she took," Bruce Cain, a UC-Berkeley professor and director of the University of California Washington Center, told the San Jose Mercury News. "[Fiorina] was perfectly situated to get through the primary, but it did not set her up well for the general election."
Fiorina tried to paint Boxer as someone who had been in the Senate for too long, was too tied to Obama and the $814 billion stimulus bill, and was out of touch. However, Boxer attacked Fiorina's record as HP's CEO, saying that during her tenure, HP laid off 30,000 employees while sending jobs oversees and giving Fiorina bonuses. She was further hurt when HP heirs, some employees and former employees, and Silicon Valley figures-including Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers-came out for Boxer. Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett did come out in support of Fiorina.
Whitman touted her business background at eBay and talked about tax breaks for businesses. She also took a hard line on immigration, but was hurt when it was revealed that the Mexican housekeeper she had hired was an undocumented alien.