With Whitman and Fiorina, can GOP compete again in California?

California has voted solidly Democratic in recent elections. But the national GOP may be hoping that, with Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina as standard-bearers there, the party can broaden its appeal.

By , Staff writer

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    Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman celebrated in Anaheim June 8 after winning the GOP nomination for California governor.
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    Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, won the primary for a US Senate seat the same night
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As Democrats did in 1992 – electing Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to US Senate seats – Republicans are out to grab the "Year of the Woman" mantle in 2010.

Some call the California Republican primary wins by Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman – both millionaires and former CEOs – a vote for business pragmatism by angry voters frustrated with government ineptitude in America's once-golden state. Others say the victories reflect a conscious push by the state and national Republican party to broaden its appeal to female voters and diversify the face of the GOP.

Either way, Ms. Fiorina versus Ms. Boxer and Ms. Whitman versus Jerry Brown will be two of the most highly watched political showdowns in the country from now until November.

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"One of the greatest challenges for the GOP nationally is diversifying their group of elected office holders," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Unlike the Democrats, Republican officials at the highest levels are overwhelmingly white and male. That isn't America in the 21st century, and if the GOP wants to continue to win its fair share of elections, it has to change its image."

Though not as wealthy as billionaire former eBay CEO Whitman, Fiorina – former head of Hewlett Packard – has millions of her own to spend. Such funds make the duo even more attractive to national party leaders, whether they can win or not.

"The national GOP wants to make California competitive again, and I think they have decided it's not just a state they should cede to the Democrats," says Lara Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "Under Howard Dean, the Democratic party adopted a 50-state strategy saying the way to build the party back was to get great candidates no matter what," she says. "Meg and Carly are part of the same idea by the GOP and are helping even more because they have their own money and the party doesn't have to invest in them."

Whitman's performance against former Governor Brown, now state attorney general, and Fiorina's ability to unseat three-term US Senate veteran Boxer will depend largely on how the current national mood against incumbents evolves. California's economy – now with 12.8 percent unemployment – will also temper the race. Whitman won her primary, say experts, by emphasizing three priorities – creating jobs, cutting government spending, and fixing California schools.

The two candidates present a paradox to their opponents, experts say, because neither Whitman nor Fiorina has any substantial political experience. That is a simultaneous asset and liability, because neither of them has a track record that opponents can trash, nor do they have any background to tout. Inexperience isn't a concern, says Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

"Both Brown and Boxer should be quite worried," he says. "They are facing well-funded, articulate, attractive candidates who ran good primary campaigns."

Mr. Stern points out that no self-funded candidate has ever won a US Senate or gubernatorial race in California, with the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he says won for other reasons. "However, Brown and Boxer are experienced campaigners who know how to win," says Stern.

Whitman is the first woman to win the Republican nomination for governor of California.

"It's time for a different style of leadership – a new beginning. Not glitz, not glamour, not glibness, but guts," Whitman told a victory crowd assembled on election night.

Her strategists say she will continue to focus on returning California to being the state known for prosperity and innovation. She has pledged to create 2 million new jobs by 2015, to reduce the state's deficit by finding $15 billion in savings and efficiencies, and to make California's public schools once again the best in the nation.

A day after securing their parties' nominations, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Brown challenged Whitman to a series of 10 town-hall debates, saying they would counter the artifice and prevalence of TV advertising.

"If I never see another political ad in my life, I'll be happy," Brown said. "Meg and I may not agree on many issues, but we can at least tell the truth and explain how we would approach the job of governor."

Whitman responded by prodding Brown to lay out his plan for California.

Fiorina is also the first woman to claim her position. She will focus on her own abilities as a bottom-line businesswoman. As chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Company from 1999 to 2005, Fiorina steered it through the dotcom bust. During her tenure, HP's revenues doubled, from $44 billion to $88 billion, though she was forced to step down after a contentious merger. She will be painting Boxer as part of Washington's failed status quo.

"In her 28 years of being a career politician in Washington, D.C., Barbara Boxer has been a bitter partisan who has said much and accomplished little," Fiorina told supporters June 9. "She may get an 'A' for politics, but she gets an 'F' for achievement."

Boxer welcomes a fight against Fiorina, and says voters should have no trouble making up their minds.

"I'm really glad that I have an opponent who is such a strong contrast to me," Boxer said in a statement. "She's far right, she's out of the mainstream, and she's got Sarah Palin's endorsement – that speaks for itself."

Related:

Tuesday primaries: Year of the Republican woman dawning?

Women shine in Tuesday's primaries, especially for the GOP

Hefty spending key to Meg Whitman's late lead in GOP primary

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