Carly Fiorina: “The GOP Antidote to Clinton?”
By Niall Stanage – 04/23/15 06:00 AM EDT
Republican Carly Fiorina is eagerly portraying herself as the electoral antidote to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
It’s a role she’s been playing for some time, turning heads at GOP events this winter for her sharp jabs at the former secretary of State.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO is revving up for her own run at the White House, with The Wall Street Journal reporting she’ll make her bid official with a May 4 online announcement. Until then, she’s already seizing on Clinton’s entrance in the race last week to bolster her candidacy in a male-dominated GOP field.
On the day that the former first lady officially launched her White House bid earlier this month, Fiorina posted a video to her Facebook page, insisting that the Democrat was “not the woman for the White House” — leaving little doubt about whom she thought would fit that role.
Fiorina even took an implicit personal shot at the Clintons after she was asked to respond to another female business executive, Cheryl Rios, who had claimed that the presidency was best “left to a man.”
“I think American history is littered with examples of men whose judgment was clouded by their hormones, including in the Oval Office,” Fiorina hit back on “Fox & Friends.” The remark was widely seen as an allusion to former President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Fiorina, who made a failed bid for the Senate in 2010 against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), is in the middle of a five-day trip to Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held early next year.
She has a difficult needle to thread, since she is emphasizing her gender in a party that has long been wary of identity politics. Her argument is that in a woman vs. woman contest, attention could be properly focused on the issues rather than on the history-making possibilities of the first female president.
“Gender shouldn’t be the basis upon which we make that decision,” she said during the same “Fox & Friends” appearance.
The argument finds support among conservatives and Republicans.
“None of the male candidates will get away with directly posing those questions [to Hillary Clinton] about gender: ‘Other than gender, what is your rationale?’ ” Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway told The Hill. “A female messenger can more ably poke holes in the idea that women should vote based upon their gender.”
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas has written that, “the polls don’t register much support for Fiorina but if people listen to what she has to say, particularly about Hillary Clinton, that could change.”
National Review’s John Fund acknowledged that the businesswoman was getting attention because of her gender and professional background but added, “more and more people are staying to listen because she has something fresh to say.”
The mountain Fiorina has to climb is very steep, however. Her poll numbers are mired in the single digits. She has never held elected office. She lost her Senate race to Boxer by 10 percentage points. And she has acknowledged that outsourcing during her time at the helm of HP is likely to be an issue if she becomes a serious contender.
Even some people who are sympathetic to her overall worldview are doubtful she can really make headway.
“It’s nice to have a woman in the field. But is she the right woman for the party right now? I’m not sure about that,” said Nicole McCleskey, another GOP pollster.
Though most GOP strategists are reluctant to admit it, there is a belief in some quarters that Fiorina is more likely to assist the party in demonstrating its inclusiveness than she is likely to become the nominee.
The Republican Party’s record with female voters in the past two presidential elections is very poor. President Obama won the backing of 55 percent of female voters versus 44 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012. Back in 2008, Obama’s advantage was 13 percentage points over GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
TV debates in this year’s cycle that could feature 10 or 15 men and no women, if Fiorina fails to make the cut, would hardly help the GOP’s cause.
“It’s a perceptual problem that the party continues to face. There is certainly awareness and attention focused on it,” McCleskey said.
Michelle Bernard, formerly of the right-leaning Independent Women’s Forum and now the president and CEO of the Bernard Center, said she had entertained hopes McCain might have chosen Fiorina rather than then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.
“The mistake that Republicans made in 2008 was assuming that the country would vote for any woman, as long as there was a woman on the ticket. That was not the case,” she said.
Other observers suggest that there is an obvious problem for Fiorina: the argument that she is able to neutralize Clinton only becomes relevant if one believes that she has a credible shot at becoming the GOP nominee.
“I can’t envision any scenario in which that is the case,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “Yes, it’s true that, if there were a female Republican nominee and a female Democratic nominee, that would steal some of Hillary Clinton’s thunder. But that’s not going to happen.”
Still, for some conservatives the reality is simple: a strong run by Fiorina can’t hurt the party among female voters.
“When you think about what you saw in the last two elections, and you think [of things like] Mitt Romney and ‘binders full of women,’ and all of the discussions that pigeonholed women …” Bernard recalls. “Carly Fiorina can only help the Republican Party with its huge gender gap.”
This article appeared in The Hill on April 23, 2015.