Fiorina, Whitman Face Hurdles in Calif. Campaign Bids

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2009-09-06

Fiorina, Whitman Face Hurdles in Calif. Campaign Bids

It's awash in billions of dollars of debt, has a high-profile but ineffective governor and has a Republican Party that continues to lose relevance in a state it once dominated.

That's California, where the battle to close a $26 billion budget gap got so bad that the state this summer had to start issuing IOUs in lieu of payments, and where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now putting state items on the auction block and on eBay to raise much needed cash.

Stepping into this morass are Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, two former CEOs of high-tech computer giants who are making their first forays into politics by targeting major offices in California-Fiorina for the U.S. Senate and Whitman for governor.

Both Fiorina, who was Hewlett-Packard's chairman and CEO until her ouster in 2006, and Whitman, who as CEO helped build eBay from a startup to an Internet powerhouse, bring star power and truckloads of their own money onto the scene, both of which help give them a leg up on competitors for their party's nominations.

Still, they both face significant challenges, from a lack of political experience to having to navigate the roiling waters that is the state Republican Party. They also could be hamstrung by the legacy of Schwarzenegger, another big-name and well-moneyed Republican with no real political experience who many voters feel has done little while in office and has mishandled California's budget mess.

"When it comes to Fiorina and Whitman, in some ways, they're coming to the party of [voters] experimenting with a private person [for public office] a little late," Mark Petracca, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine, said in an interview. "I don't think that, given the Schwarzenegger experience the state had, that people are interested in whether an executive [at a company] can make a good politician."

Whitman, who retired from eBay in 2008 after 10 years at the helm of the online auction site, in February officially announced her candidacy to replace Schwarzenegger when his second term expires in 2011. Her top primary rivals include Steve Poizner, the state's insurance commissioner and a Silicon Valley millionaire whose last startup, SnapTrack, created GPS devices placed in cell phones.

Fiorina first speculated about her political ambitions earlier this year, and in August registered a campaign committee called "Carly for California," the first step in a possible 2010 run against three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Her only declared primary rival would be Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

Even though Fiorina is not yet a declared candidate, Boxer already reportedly is using her as a rallying point with campaign donors. Recent polls have shown Whitman leading her GOP opponents and Fiorina close behind Boxer.

Whitman has been pushing an agenda that focuses on what campaign aides have said are key issues for California voters, including jobs and the economy. Fiorina has added the federal government into that mix.

"The people of California have serious concerns about job creation, economic growth and the role of government in solving problems that touch each of our lives," Fiorina said in a recent statement. "I have received a great deal of encouragement to make a run for the Senate in 2010 from people across the political spectrum because these are all issues that need focused attention in Washington."

Fiorina, Whitman Face Hurdles in Calif. Campaign Bids

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Money and name recognition are significant assets both Fiorina and Whitman bring to the scene. In a state as large as California, money is very important because much of the campaigning is done "in a wholesale way," through such avenues as statewide media blitzes, Petracca said. A door-to-door campaign isn't feasible.

Both can push a lot of their own personal money into their campaigns, much more so than their rivals. Still, money can't buy a win, Petracca said. He pointed to Al Checchi, who spent $40 million of his own money in the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, only to finish second in the Democratic primary to the highly unpopular incumbent, Gray Davis.

Fiorina and Whitman also come with something Schwarzenegger didn't when he replaced Davis in 2003: experience running the operations of major corporations. However, given the negative view of Schwarzenegger's tenure-particularly during the budget crisis-the lack of political experience could be a drag on them.

"The stature of the governor's position itself was degraded to a degree over the last few months," Charles King, an IT analyst with Pund-IT Research, based in Hayward, Calif. "Schwarzenegger was not able to offer meaningful pressure on the parties to compromise. He talked tough, but he couldn't do anything."

Voters may be tired of celebrity candidates with big names and deep pockets coming into office through the side door, without any real political experience, Petracca said. Both have been somewhat active politically-Whitman was a vocal supporter of President George W. Bush, and Fiorina was a high-profile proxy for Sen. John McCain's bid for the White House, though she was dismissed after conflicts there.

Fiorina in particular may also take a hit for a lack of political experience of another kind. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Fiorina has only voted in five of 18 national and state elections since registering to vote in California in 2000, and had equally poor voting habits in Maryland. For her part, Whitman didn't vote in the 2003 recall election.

Petracca said voters could take a dim view of Fiorina's voting record.

"They may ask, ?ö?ç??Why should we let you get sent into office in late middle age when you haven't shown an interest in politics until now?" he said.

Without the political experience, voters and the media will look at their track records as tech executives. Whitman had a good run at eBay and left on her own accord, though there were issues with eBay's performance in the last years of her tenure. Fiorina was at HP for six years before being ousted for HP's lack of growth, despite the company's purchase of Compaq. It was also during her tenure that HP cut 20,000 jobs, after which she took a buyout that included more than $20 million in severance.

"As we get closer to the election, a lot [of scrutiny of their job performances] will come up," King said. "I don't think Whitman did everything right at eBay, but at least she wasn't shown the door."

That media scrutiny might not be easy to take, and both will have to be proactive in getting their messages out there to the voters, Petracca said. That's something they haven't done yet, he said.

Fiorina's and Whitman's connections to the high-tech industry-a big part of California's economy-may also carry little weight with the electorate. The bulk of the GOP money comes from Southern California, Petracca said. In addition, the tech connection may play well in the urban areas of the state, said King, but get a few miles outside of Los Angeles or San Francisco, "and you feel like you stepped into the middle of Oklahoma, from a socio-political standpoint."

Still, despite any drawbacks the candidates might have, major GOP figures both in California and in other states have thrown their support behind Fiorina and Whitman. For example, both McCain and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have spoken for Fiorina.

However, both still have to figure out a way of steering through the California Republican landscape, Petracca said. The GOP has been losing steam as the demographics in the state have changed, and now much of the party is controlled by strong conservatives, he said. The problem for any Republican candidate is that to win the GOP primary, they need to play to those conservatives on both fiscal and social issues. But those conservatives' views-particularly on social issues-won't help them win a general election.

Both have some liberal-leaning opinions-Whitman is pro-choice, while Fiorina supports civil unions, though not gay marriages. But whether such views are enough to carry the general elections is unknown.

King said Fiorina needs to be careful, given Boxer's experience and the people who back her.

"Barbara and [Sen. Dianne] Feinstein [D-Calif.] are heavyweights," he said. "They've been there a long time. Fiorina and others seem to think they can run in the middle and paint Boxer as a freakazoid lefty. Others have tried that, and they've got the tread marks on their backs to show for it."

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