Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina listens to questions during a business luncheon with New Hampshire Republican lawmakers, Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) (AP)

The GOP's Carly conspiracy: Why Carly Fiorina is surging in the Republican primary (and what it means)

The former Hewlett Packard CEO (and failed Senate candidate) is on the rise after last Thursday's debate


Heather Digby Parton
August 10, 2015 9:37PM (UTC)

The first polling since Thursday night's GOP debates was released yesterday and once again they shocked the beltway Villagers all the way down to the soles of their Sperry Top-Siders. Defying all odds and every prediction, Donald Trump is still on top. Why anyone assumed that insulting Fox News' Megyn Kelly would sink him among GOP voters when calling John McCain a phony hero didn't is beyond me. Insulting women is so common I'd imagine half of Trumps voters didn't see it as an insult and the other half agreed it was completely deserved.

In any case, Trump is holding fast at about a quarter of the primary electorate. They like him, they really like him. But just as interesting was what happened to the rest of the field. The alleged front runners, Bush and Walker, fell precipitously. Ted Cruz came in 2nd, Ben Carson 3rd, and Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina tied for 4th place. Nearly half of GOP voters came away from those debates liking these five candidates the best. Walker and Bush are running close behind, (and all of the candidates but Trump are still clustered pretty close together.) But with the exception of Rubio, it appears that the debates didn't do the "real front-runners" much good. Walker and Bush aren't even close to sealing the deal.

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Cruz and Carson are wingnut favorites and it's not surprising they would do well. (And Cruz is gathering plenty of wingnut billionaire money too, so it wouldn't be smart to completely discount him.) The real surprise of the night was failed CEO and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina. She was widely seen as having been very successful in the earlier "Kids Table," debate which made her a superstar for the hour between her performance and the big show in center ring. Megyn Kelly pretty much declared her the winner during the strange happy talk segment that preceded the second debate when she said to the 10 men gathered on the stage,“You’re lucky you weren’t here earlier, [Carly Fiorina] opened a can of you-know-what before.” (Fiorina returned the favor this weekend.)

Kelly's enthusiastic cheerleading may have been a bit of an exaggeration. Fiorina benefitted by being seen next to a group of depressed but strangely overstimulated warmongers. And she didn't sound completely unhinged which set her apart from everyone on the stage who wasn't an unknown governor from a distant past. Virtually anyone who didn't call Ronald Reagan "Ronald Raven" would look pretty good by comparison.

And if you are a voter who does not live in California you probably have no idea who Fiorina is, which definitely works in her favor. Everyone who does live in California knows her as the extremely obnoxious candidate who ran against Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate back in 2010. And if you are a person who works in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley, you certainly know her as the marketing executive who inexplicably was chosen to run the venerable electronics company Hewlett Packard and single handedly destroyed a business culture that had thrived for half a century turning in 20 percent growth year after year.

But credit where credit is due: Fiorina came up through the trenches, working for AT&T for decades, starting out as a management trainee and climbing up through the ranks, something that wasn't easy for women of her generation. She ended up as the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Unfortunately, her tenure was fraught with problems as IPOs fell apart and a hugely controversial merger sparked shareholder revolts. She oversaw a massive drop in stock value and more than 30,000 U.S. layoffs. What had once been a company with a strong, loyal business ethos was left just another short-term-thinking, dog-eat-dog corporation when she was forced out in 2005.

That didn't stop Fiorina from getting into the political ring just five years later. Her Senate campaign against Boxer was probably best remembered for a "hot mic" episode that caught Fiorina being critical of Barbara Boxer's hairdo, which is never a good look. That was the year that the California GOP tried to get past the firewall of shame that Pete Wilson built back in 1996 by running two vastly wealthy Silicon Valley women (the other candidate, former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman, ran for Governor) and both spent fortunes only to be soundly defeated in their races. It should have been an early lesson in how "identity politics" doesn't work for Republicans, but from the looks of the Rubio, Cruz and Fiorina campaigns, they're going to give it a try on the presidential level. One suspects it will have just as much success as Senator Fiorina and Governor Whitman had with their races.

The other day when the donor lists to various campaigns were revealed many noticed an odd curiosity about Fiorina's donations. A pro-Cruz super PAC controlled by millionaire Robert Mercer (who had written checks for 5 million to Cruz's effort) sent $500,0000 to Carly Fiorina's super PAC. How often does it happen that a PAC for one candidate helps one of its rivals in a primary campaign? But New York Times reporter Amy Chozick cleared up the mystery when she tweeted:

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Fiorina finance chairs told me supporters of other candidates have thrown them $$$ to have a woman in race attacking HRC.

Now that makes sense. (And it also explains why the Koch Brothers invited her to their recent billionaire meet-and-greet.) The Republicans understand the minefield they are going to be walking if Clinton should become the first woman nominee for president of one of the two major parties. It will be helpful to have a woman on the trail making a slash and burn case against her without incurring the wrath of Clinton's woman supporters. In her closing statement at the Kiddie Table debate that's exactly what she promised to do:

Hillary Clinton lies about Benghazi, lies about her emails, she’s still defending Planned Parenthood and she is still her party’s frontrunner. 2016 is going to be a fight between conservatism and a Democratic Party that is undermining the very character of this nation. We need a nominee that is going to throw every punch, not pull punches. Someone who cannot stumble before he even gets into the ring.

I don't know who she's talking about there, but I'd guess his initials are J.E.B. She won't, however, have the help of her 2010 campaign staff for this great crusade, however:

Twelve of about 30 people who worked on Fiorina’s failed 2010 California Senate campaign, most speaking out for the first time, told Reuters they would not work for her again. Fiorina, once one of America’s most powerful businesswomen, is now campaigning for the Republican nomination in 2016.

The reason: for more than four years, Fiorina – who has an estimated net worth of up to $120 million – didn’t pay them, a review of Federal Election Commission records shows.

Normally fantastically wealthy candidates like Fiorina pay campaign debts themselves, simply in order to maintain a reputation for being something of a decent human being. Of course with Fiorina that ship sailed some time ago so perhaps she felt there was no point.

She did finally pay up just before she announced her run for president so that's nice. One of her high level staffers said this to a Reuters reporter: “I’d rather go to Iraq than work for Carly Fiorina again.” There are probably tens of thousands of former HP employees who feel exactly the same way.

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But if past is prologue, Fiorina will happily play the attack dog and end up even richer than she was before. Who knows, if all of her cards fall exactly right she could wind up Donald Trump's Vice Presidential running mate on the new Heartless Plutocrat Party ticket. They'd be a perfect match.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

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