Inside Carly Fiorina’s California campaign meltdown

Updated 9:13 AM EDT, Wed September 30, 2015
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Story highlights

Carly Fiorina ran for the Senate in 2010 during a year in which Republicans won many races

Her loss offers lessons as she rises to the top of the 2016 GOP pack

(CNN) —  

Carly Fiorina is surprising many Republicans with her meteoric rise to the top tier of the 2016 GOP race. But here in California, her sparkling performances on the campaign trail look more like a case of déjà vu.

Before plummeting to a 10-percentage-point loss during a wave year for Republicans in 2010, the former chief executive mounted a fierce challenge to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer with all of the same assets she is displaying now.

She dazzled voters, particularly women, with her secretary-to-CEO life narrative. She impressed them with her toughness – from her well-placed jabs at Boxer to her own gutsy story as a breast cancer survivor. She demonstrated a brilliant ability to synthesize complex issues into sound bites, even if critics often took issue with the way she framed the facts.

But the 2010 race offered a window into something else: the ease of constructing a brutal and relentless takedown of the one-time Hewlett-Packard chief executive that could well be repeated in the presidential cycle. The anti-Fiorina playbook in California packed a powerful one-two punch: pairing the stories of dismissed H-P workers with details of her compensation package and luxurious CEO “perks” – from private jets to yachts – defining her as the face of corporate greed.

RELATED: In Iowa, lines blurred between Fiorina campaign and super PAC

The attacks were particularly potent, because opponents used Fiorina’s own words against her, plucking damaging quotes from the vast trove of video that comprises her business career.

’Very concerned’

“Early on, we were very concerned,” said Boxer’s lead strategist, Rose Kapolczynski, recalling her alarm when she first experienced Fiorina’s powerful appeal to moderate women of all political parties in early focus groups. “Some voters found her so appealing that when we told them about her laying off workers, they didn’t believe us. They’d say ‘She wouldn’t do that.’ “

Facing that disbelief in an election climate favoring Republicans, the Boxer team set out on an intensive scrub of Fiorina’s business record, sifting through her countless interviews, speeches and public statements.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer shakes hands with republican candidate for U.S. Senate Carly Fiorina at the conclusion of a debate on the campus of Saint Mary's College September 1, 2010 in Moraga, California.
PHOTO: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer shakes hands with republican candidate for U.S. Senate Carly Fiorina at the conclusion of a debate on the campus of Saint Mary's College September 1, 2010 in Moraga, California.

“We worked hard to find video of her talking about layoffs and shipping jobs overseas,” Kapolczynski said, “because that was the proof point – that we aren’t making this up; it isn’t a political attack; it is her in her own words.”

“We barely scratched the surface,” said Kapolczynki said, looking back at the campaign where Boxer spent nearly $28 million to Fiorina’s $22 million.

Fiorina’s record at H-P is already a major issue in the 2016 Republican campaign. Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, slammed her tenure at CNN’s Republican presidential debate earlier this month.

“The company is a disaster and continues to be a disaster,” Trump said.

Asked about the criticism of Fiorina’s corporate record in 2010 and how the campaign would handle H-P related attacks this cycle, a Fiorina spokeswoman referred calls to former Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants, a senior adviser to the campaign, who noted that an increasing number of Fiorina’s colleagues were coming forward to tell the positive side of her H-P legacy.

“There’s a compelling story to tell,” he said.

On Wednesday, a Fiorina spokeswoman also emailed a compilation of quotes from Fiorina’s co-workers at H-P and AT&T praising her vision, insights and compassion, which the campaign assembled into a post on Medium.

Five years after her failed Senate bid, Fiorina is trying to transform her presidential campaign from upstart to that of a party standard bearer. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of the GOP race released this week, Fiorina tied for third place with Marco Rubio at 11%. She didn’t register at all in the same poll in July.

As she rises, Fiorina is facing a critical test: offering a more compelling defense of her H-P record to prove to donors and GOP voters that she is the strongest contender to face off against Hillary Clinton.

Largely through the help of an allied super PAC, the CARLY For America committee, there are signs of a more proactive effort to take control of the H-P narrative than in 2010, when Fiorina’s campaign manager, Martin Wilson, often told reporters that you couldn’t win a campaign “on defense.”

In recent weeks, former employees supportive of Fiorina have come forward in carefully placed op-eds to praise her achievements and her effort to shake up what they described as a slumbering culture at H-P (unfortunately for Fiorina, those efforts coincided with a fresh round of layoffs at the tech giant).

The super PAC website dedicated to describing her journey – fromsecretarytoceo.com – is also soliciting personal stories under the banner “Have you worked with Carly? Tell your story.”

Is America ready for a CEO president?

Differences between 2010 and 2016

When asked about the differences between 2010 and 2016, Rants said many of those favorable stories would emerge to bolster Fiorina’s case. He pointed in particular to the testimony of former H-P board member Tom Perkins, who Fiorina once accused of orchestrating her ouster from H-P.

In full-page letter published as an ad in The New York Times by the pro-Fiorina super PAC, Perkins countered those who claim she was fired at HP because she was “unsuccessful.” Instead, Perkins said the board was “ineffective and dysfunctional” and wrong to fire her – a description Fiorina has neatly framed herself in her stump speech line that she was “fired in a boardroom brawl.”

“We are making sure that the truth gets out, that the actual record is in context,” Rants said. “If we don’t get the story out, shame on us. But if we do our job, then I think people will understand that she was brought in to be a change agent; that it was a rocky time for the economy and the tech industry as a whole; and that the company grew – and because of what she did, they’re actually in decent shape.”

Fiorina’s record at H-P only became the dominant issue during the general election in 2010. It didn’t draw as much attention during her primary campaign.

Running as a staunchly pro-life conservative, she was not well known in California and ran fairly evenly against her two underwhelming and underfunded Republican opponents: Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and California Rep. Tom Campbell, a law professor who had advanced controversial ideas such as distributing heroin to heroin addicts in an effort to reduce crime and drug addiction.

Fiorina downplays her insider credentials on the trail

While Democrats would later use Fiorina’s wealth as part of their attack against her, Republican voters keen on ousting Boxer viewed it as a sign of her wherewithal in an expensive California campaign. (At the time of her 2005 firing from H-P, Fiorina received more than $21 million in severance, and the financial disclosure forms that she filed with the Senate Ethics Committee in 2009 showed an asset range for Fiorina and her husband of between $27.7 million and $121 million).

By loaning her campaign $5.5 million, Fiorina ramped up her television presence in the final phase of the campaign and easily dispatched her opponents – helped, in part, by a late endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Boxer, a polarizing figure whose approval ratings had dipped at times below 40%, appeared ripe for a challenge. Shortly before the California primary in 2010, only 34% of voters said they wanted to re-elect the three-term incumbent in a University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll, while 49% said they wanted to elect someone else.

Fiorina rose to the challenge. With the economy still recovering from a recession, she filleted Boxer as a feckless and unimaginative bureaucrat who had presided over a bloated bureaucracy while acting “accountable to no one” during 28 years in office.

She used many of the same talking points about her H-P tenure that she does today: that she doubled the company’s revenue and employment under her watch (a result of the controversial merger with Compaq Computer Corp. in 2002). She was self-assured and unapologetic, never seeming to second-guess her actions during her six years at H-P.

Fiorina defends waterboarding

Questions about competency

Still, her campaign couldn’t stay on offense.

The roiling debate over Fiorina’s tenure and the circumstances of her firing raised questions for voters about her competency. But it was the stories from former employees that dealt the most devastating blow, by putting a human face to her history of presiding over 30,000 layoffs and her unapologetic embrace of the offshoring of those jobs to other countries.

“While Californians lost their jobs, Fiorina tripled her salary, bought a million-dollar yacht and five corporate jets,” one of the ads said. “Carly Fiorina. Outsourcing jobs. Out for herself.”

The ad did not mention that in the process of acquiring five corporate jets while Fiorina was chief executive, H-P retired four jets.

Fiorina had many defenders, but their vigor seemed outmatched by the passion of the employees she dismissed. Those workers regularly called reporters and pro-actively sought out the campaigns of her opponents, offering to tell their stories, and seeking to portray her as a ruthless self-promoter who had destroyed the famed culture of H-P.

The campaign ads featuring ordinary H-P workers who had been laid off were so effective that the Boxer campaign never felt the need to turn to the alternative lines of attack in their arsenal.

In one spot, Boxer’s ad makers stitched together the accounts of workers speaking to camera, recounting how they had planned to retire at the company.

“She shipped our jobs to China,” one employee identified as Teri said. “And India,” an employee identified as Farrell added. “I had to pack my bags – and I was out the door that night,” a third employee said. The ads, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said, were so effective because they turned Fiorina’s greatest strength into her greatest weakness.

Why Fiorina has quieted her attacks against Clinton

Even Fiorina’s former foes do not rule out the possibility that she could seize the Republican nomination, but they foresee a rough road for her campaign ahead. In a replay of 2010 history, one rival campaign has already fielded offers from fired H-P workers to tell their stories on camera, according to a campaign aide with knowledge of those conversations. The aide couldn’t speak for attribution because of the sensitivity surrounding the discussion.

Wilson, Fiorina’s former campaign manager, said her detractors are underestimating her potential to overcome those kinds of obstacles, particularly in a campaign where she will have more resources to tell her story.

“She was a very good candidate in 2010, and she’s a better candidate now,” he said. “Her ability to crisply deliver a message hasn’t subsided; she’s upped her game. She’s taken it to places I didn’t know she had in her – maybe she didn’t know. You don’t until you get out there and push yourself.”

And it is unclear whether a national audience will have the same reaction to Fiorina’s H-P tenure as voters did in California.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, noted that Fiorina’s challenge in 2010 was to convince large numbers of Democratic voters not to vote for a Democrat – in effect to stay home.

“That was a very tough hill to climb in deep-blue California,” Schnur said. “Even in a general election campaign, she’d be talking to a much more ideologically diverse electorate. Whether in a primary or a general election, she’s certainly going to face very difficult questions about her record at Hewlett-Packard, but a national electorate might not be as predisposed to reject her argument.”

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