GOP's next hope to unseat Barbara Boxer: Carly Fiorina

The former CEO of Hewlett Packard, who hasn't formally announced her candidacy for the US Senate seat from California, would be one of the few women fielded for high office by the state GOP.

By , Staff writer

Carly Fiorina is emerging as a potential GOP challenger for the US Senate seat of Bay Area liberal Barbara Boxer next year, and the prospect has energized the California Republican Party.

Not yet an official candidate, Ms. Fiorina is the former CEO of Hewlett Packard (HP) and was an economic adviser to Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid last year. Like Meg Whitman, who just announced her campaign for governor, Fiorina is a newcomer to politics with very deep pockets. She has registered a campaign committee that reportedly had a strong presence at the state GOP convention this past weekend in Indian Wells, Calif.

Her candidacy to unseat Ms. Boxer, now in her third term in the Senate and who has never faced a female opponent in the general election, would turn the election into one of the most-closely watched Senate races for 2010.

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“Fiorina would certainly skyrocket the attention paid to the 2010 Senate race,” says Jessica Levinson, political analyst for the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). “Her candidacy is symbolically important for the GOP. It puts a new, younger female face on the party.”

Strong women candidates
Fiorina is the only woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. She led HP through the dot-com bust, a recession, and a controversial merger with Compaq Computer Corporation.

Along with Ms. Whitman, the idea of two strong women with business backgrounds is unifying state Republicans who have been fractured in recent years with changing demographics and dwindling voter support.

“For the first time since (former GOP Gov.) Pete Wilson’s 1994 campaign, I feel a sense of ‘we’ in the Republican Party,” said Rep. Darrell Issa to the San Francisco Chronicle after the three-day convention.

Fifty-three percent of California voters are women and the state GOP here has rarely fielded female candidates for high office.

“Fiorina could give Boxer her toughest campaign so far. Along with Meg Whitman, this could return some women to the Republican fold,” says Robert Stern, president of CGS.

New to politics
However, she has several liabilities. She does not have a long track record, her views are relatively unknown to most Californians, and she left Hewlett Packard under less than ideal conditions.

In the GOP primary, Fiorina will be up against state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a veteran and businessman who has been doing a little better than her in recent polls. Her unofficial campaign website was launched last week and criticized for being amateurish.

Fiorina was not present at the GOP state convention and has kept a very low profile for several months battling breast cancer.

“People are concerned about her health, she was active in the McCain campaign and the high-tech community is ambivalent about her,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. Ms. O'Connor notes that Boxer and the Democrats will also be energized by a strong GOP candidate.

“Everyone underestimates Boxer and her ability to campaign,” she says. “She is wickedly good at raising money and motivating people and if the race gets close, deep pockets from the national Democratic party could start pouring in.”

What will be key, say O’Connor and others, will be the state of the California economy next spring. If it’s doing well, the claim of an outsider with business sense won’t be as attractive to voters as if the economy is still in the doldrums.

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