Carly Fiorina Hits the Trail With an Eye on 2016

A businesswoman with a mixed record might be the GOP’s only shot at a female presidential prospect.

Carly Fiorina, Chairman of Good360, and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, speaks at the National Press Club, July 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. Ms. Fiorina was the guest speaker for the Press Club's newsmaker luncheon and spoke about American innovation and leadership in the 21st century. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Emily Schultheis
Sept. 24, 2014, 4:32 p.m.

MEREDITH, N.H.—She’s been to New Hamp­shire three times and South Car­o­lina once. She’s head­ing to Iowa this week­end, and then North Car­o­lina and Michigan after that. Clearly, Carly Fior­ina is think­ing about 2016.

But is any­body think­ing about Carly Fior­ina?

The former Hew­lett-Pack­ard CEO and 2010 Sen­ate can­did­ate is hit­ting the cam­paign trail in the lead-up to Elec­tion Day for her new su­per PAC, teach­ing act­iv­ists and politi­cians how to talk to fe­male voters—and build­ing her­self a grass­roots base in a half-dozen elect­or­ally im­port­ant states in the pro­cess.

While her ef­forts are fo­cused on help­ing the GOP win con­trol of the Sen­ate in Novem­ber, polit­ic­al strategists say Fior­ina is do­ing all the right things to prep for a 2016 bid. And the mes­sage she’s tout­ing is a pre­view of the kind of role she could play, if she runs.

So will she run?

“People ask me that a lot, so if you get asked that a lot you have to think about it—you have to con­sider it,” Fior­ina told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I’m flattered by the ques­tion and I have to con­sider it.”

The pos­sib­il­ity of a Fior­ina can­did­acy—which at this point is, of course, still just a pos­sib­il­ity—speaks to the dearth of Re­pub­lic­an wo­men con­sidered to be pres­id­en­tial pro­spects.

South Car­o­lina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mex­ico Gov. Susana Mar­tinez are oc­ca­sion­ally men­tioned, as are New Hamp­shire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers. Reps. Michele Bach­mann and Mar­sha Black­burn have put their own names out as pos­sib­il­it­ies. But none of those wo­men have taken steps that nor­mally pre­cede a can­did­acy.

“Look, I think it would be great if we had fe­male can­did­ates—or can­did­ate,” Fior­ina said as she headed to an event in New Hamp­shire’s Lakes Re­gion, her fourth of the day. “A party should be as di­verse as the people it is try­ing to rep­res­ent “¦ this is a di­verse na­tion and 53 per­cent of the voters are wo­men.”

Dana Peri­no, who was the first fe­male White House press sec­ret­ary un­der a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent and now co­hosts The Five on Fox News, doesn’t see any of these Re­pub­lic­an wo­men be­ing im­me­di­ately ready to jump in­to the fray. “I don’t pre­dict ‘an in­stant pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, just add wa­ter’ on the GOP side in 2016, but I am im­pressed with many of the lead­ers, es­pe­cially the gov­ernors.”

Their biggest chal­lenge, Peri­no said, will be rais­ing cash. “Sev­er­al wo­men are fun­drais­ing power­houses, though not yet to the level they’d need to be to fin­ance a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign,” she said.

Hav­ing wo­men in the 2016 field could help the party’s im­age among fe­male voters, and per­haps nar­row the ever-present gender gap that has helped Demo­crats win na­tion­al elec­tions in 2008 and 2012. With all the at­ten­tion this year on con­tra­cep­tion, abor­tion, and equal pay, cam­paign strategists say the party could use someone who un­der­stands how to com­mu­nic­ate ef­fect­ively with wo­men.

“Her in­volve­ment can only make [the 2016 field] bet­ter,” said Mar­jor­ie Dannen­felser, who heads the an­ti­abor­tion wo­men’s group Susan B. An­thony List. “I think she in par­tic­u­lar, and what her lead­er­ship rep­res­ents, is something that will be of great be­ne­fit to the Re­pub­lic­an Party “¦ she would add a lot, and something that is miss­ing.”

Most people re­mem­ber Fior­ina for her 2010 Sen­ate loss to Bar­bara Box­er in Cali­for­nia, but she didn’t fade from the polit­ic­al scene after the votes were coun­ted. She served as vice-chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee the fol­low­ing cycle, in 2012, help­ing to raise money. Now she’s chair­wo­man of the Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on Found­a­tion and serves on the boards of two non­profits.

The sum­mer launch of the su­per PAC, called the Un­lock­ing Po­ten­tial Pro­ject, put Fior­ina back in the head­lines na­tion­ally, mak­ing her the face of the GOP’s ef­fort to com­bat the “war on wo­men” rhet­or­ic. The group, which as of Ju­ly had raised $1.1 mil­lion, fo­cuses on six states: Col­or­ado, Iowa, Michigan, New Hamp­shire, North Car­o­lina, and Vir­gin­ia.

Al­to­geth­er, it has cre­ated an op­por­tun­ity for Fior­ina to hit the trail and do the kind of cam­paign work that could help her build name re­cog­ni­tion, make con­nec­tions, and test mes­sages.

In New Hamp­shire, for ex­ample, the su­per PAC’s state-level op­er­a­tions are headed by Lauren Car­ney, a long­time GOP con­sult­ant and the wife of Dave Car­ney, who was a vet­er­an staffer for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and ran his 2012 New Hamp­shire op­er­a­tions.

Dur­ing her most re­cent Gran­ite State trip, Fior­ina met im­port­ant fig­ures across the state: She spoke to fe­male Re­pub­lic­an act­iv­ists at a Sea­coast Re­pub­lic­an Wo­men’s lunch­eon, toured a fact­ory with GOP gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Walt Haven­stein, and cam­paigned for a fe­male state Sen­ate can­did­ate in the state’s Lakes Re­gion. It was a more ex­tens­ive trip than even sev­er­al of the most likely 2016 can­did­ates have taken.

She also met with former GOP Gov. John Sununu, a fix­ture of New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics and an in­flu­en­tial play­er in the state’s pres­id­en­tial primar­ies.

“Carly stopped by and had cof­fee,” Sununu told Na­tion­al Journ­al, adding that all the top 2016 pro­spects “have been by and I give them the same ad­vice: If you’re go­ing to run, you have to de­cide early and you have to run hard up here, and people want to see you.”

In Iowa, Fior­ina’s group just an­nounced a 61-mem­ber ad­vis­ory board that in­cludes state-level elec­ted of­fi­cials, prom­in­ent fe­male GOP act­iv­ists, and vo­lun­teers. The group’s state dir­ect­or is Angie Hughes, a staffer for Iowa House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Linda Up­mey­er, and in­cludes sev­er­al oth­er seasoned Hawkeye State pols.

On the road, Fior­ina is part cam­paign op­er­at­ive and part pub­lic fig­ure. At the New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Party’s fall con­ven­tion at South­ern New Hamp­shire Uni­versity in Hook­sett, N.H., she gave a rous­ing key­note speech to del­eg­ates about the party’s need to con­vince voters of their own per­son­al po­ten­tial. (As she fin­ished speak­ing, one man in the audi­ence shouted, “Carly for pres­id­ent!”)

Less than an hour later, she was on­stage in a classroom nearby, go­ing through a Power­Point present­a­tion is­sue-by-is­sue and ex­plain­ing to loc­al politi­cians and act­iv­ists how the GOP can best talk about them: equal pay, min­im­um wage, wo­men’s health. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Kelly Ayotte opened for her, and GOP con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Mar­ilinda Gar­cia listened in from the audi­ence.

“If it looks like test­ing the wa­ter and sounds like test­ing the wa­ter, it’s test­ing the wa­ter,” said GOP strategist Jim Mer­rill, who ran Mitt Rom­ney’s New Hamp­shire op­er­a­tions in 2012.

Kel­ly­anne Con­way, a Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster, said the idea of a fe­male busi­ness lead­er in the 2016 mix is “fas­cin­at­ing.”

“If you had phrased your ques­tion to me 4 months ago, 6 months ago, a year ago, we would have been dis­cuss­ing the fe­male Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors, and maybe even one or two of the Re­pub­lic­an fe­male sen­at­ors,” Con­way said. “But we would not have ne­ces­sar­ily dis­cussed a wo­man in busi­ness. She’s a fas­cin­at­ing entry in­to the mix be­cause you listen to her, you look at her, and you say—what’s not to like?”

Cer­tainly, many of the things that ex­cite Re­pub­lic­ans about the idea of a Fior­ina can­did­acy could also prove to be li­ab­il­it­ies: her lack of gov­ern­ment ex­per­i­ence would come up, as could her tu­mul­tu­ous de­par­ture from HP. And she’d need to ex­plain why, dur­ing her 2010 Sen­ate bid, she lost by double di­gits.

But Ned Ry­un, whose group Amer­ic­an Ma­jor­ity Ac­tion co­hos­ted the Den­ver event with Fior­ina’s group in Au­gust, said he and oth­ers in at­tend­ance were sur­prised and im­pressed by Fior­ina—and sug­ges­ted she’ll re­ceive a sim­il­ar re­cep­tion as she travels the coun­try and meets more people.

“People who had nev­er heard her talk or com­mu­nic­ate be­fore came away think­ing, ‘I really like Carly,’ ” he said. “So the more she is able to get out and let people un­der­stand who she is, I think people are go­ing to walk away and go, ‘This is very in­triguing.’ “


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