Could Carly Fiorina be poised for a breakout in the GOP presidential primary? The answer is, eh, maybe, I guess. Fiorina’s poll numbers may have risen a bit thanks to her performance in the GOP's undercard debate last month, which was good enough to get her onto the main stage for this Wednesday’s second go-round. She has also likely benefited from the stumbles of her opponents, some of whose approval ratings have plunged faster than Hewlett-Packard’s stock price when she was running the company.
Watching Fiorina the last few weeks, I kept thinking back to her 2010 Senate run in California, where I lived at the time. Despite the Republican Party having gone nearly extinct in the Golden State, the incumbent that year, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, was highly vulnerable. The GOP had a real shot at taking away her seat. Pick the right candidate, and it could have been a step on the road back to a national profile for Republicanism in the state that gave the country Ronald Reagan, and whose hefty chunk of electoral votes had, in the not too distant past, been in play for every presidential election.
To make this happen, the GOP needed for its high-profile campaign a candidate with an obvious love of politicking, someone who could radiate joy and enthusiasm for conservative governance. Instead it nominated Carly Fiorina, who radiates the personality of someone with an irritating rash.
Fiorina took positions in her campaign that seemed almost calculated to enrage Californians. She dismissed worries about climate change as being akin to worrying about “the weather,” an absurd position in a state where protecting the natural environment is an enormous concern. She criticized the federal court that struck down the embarrassment that was Proposition 8, thus paving the way for same-sex marriage. She got caught on an open mic before a debate criticizing Boxer’s hair, which made her look catty and small. It was an especially weird moment for a candidate who had been nearly bald when she began her campaign, the result of having just undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer.
Sliding so far to the right made it easy for most of the state’s voters to ignore her. Boxer stomped her like a vat of grapes in a Napa Valley winery, winning the election by 10 points. Fiorina retreated back to her corporate boards and charity work, poorer by about $6.5 million, which she had donated to her own campaign.
To be fair, Fiorina does have a good back story to help her appeal. She has a strong work ethic; you don’t get to be the first female CEO of a Fortune Top 20 company if you don’t. She works hard to study and understand the issues, particularly those that someone with a business background would not be expected to know much about. She’s a cancer survivor. Her obvious competence and willingness to dive into the daily grind of policy and politics might make more of an impression on the Republican base if it ever decides to value such things over racism and bombast. (Spoiler alert: Not this cycle, it won’t.)
Her hot mic moment over Boxer’s hair makes last week’s dust-up with Donald Trump particularly ironic. Trump probably looks at Fiorina’s background and thinks he should have cast her on "The Apprentice" back in the day, where his rank misogyny was not likely to lose him any viewers. And it’s unlikely to lose him much support in the GOP primary, where his constant belittling and insulting of his opponents only seems to help him with the raging and unchecked id that is the Republican base. I’ll be interested to see if she confronts him over it when they are on the debate stage together on Wednesday. If she can use Trump’s misogyny to tell a larger story about the everyday sexism that so many American women face every day, especially in the workplace, it could earn her some accolades and a larger national profile. And if at the same time she manages to look human, well, that will be a first.