Carly Fiorina: Outsourcer in Chief

Competitors, take note. Carly Fiorina is running a leaner campaign by shifting basic tasks to her better-funded super PAC.

This image can only be used with the John Judis piece that originally ran in the 6/20/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Republican presidential candidate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, left, greets potential voters at a campaign event at New Boston Central School, Tuesday, June 9, 2015, in New Boston, N.H.
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Shane Goldmacher
June 19, 2015, 1 a.m.

The story broke just in time for Carly Fior­ina’s three-day swing across New Hamp­shire: 13 state rep­res­ent­at­ives were en­dors­ing her for pres­id­ent. It wasn’t just news in New Hamp­shire. It was news in Fior­ina’s own headquar­ters.

That’s be­cause the en­dorse­ments wer­en’t rolled out by her cam­paign. In­stead, they had been se­cured and un­veiled by the su­per PAC sup­port­ing her.

“I learned about it from WMUR,” said Sarah Is­gur Flores, Fior­ina’s deputy cam­paign man­ager, of the loc­al TV sta­tion that had the scoop.

And how did Fior­ina learn about her raft of new back­ers? “She gets clips,” Flores said. “So, I guess, I pre­sume she read it in the clips.”

Wel­come to 2016, the first pres­id­en­tial race where can­did­ates’ ac­tu­al cam­paigns are tak­ing their cues from — and some­times a back­seat to — the su­per PACs back­ing them.

(RE­LATED: Carly Fior­ina’s Au­da­cious Sales Pitch

One month in­to her long-shot bid for the White House, Team Fior­ina is push­ing these bound­ar­ies to the ex­treme, fur­ther in fact than any con­tender in the Re­pub­lic­an field. Her of­fi­cial cam­paign has shif­ted some of the most fun­da­ment­al polit­ic­al tasks to the su­per PAC, from round­ing up en­dorse­ments to as­sem­bling a ground game and even an­swer­ing ques­tions about Fior­ina’s busi­ness back­ground.

In­deed, the first Fior­ina field of­fice of 2016, in South Car­o­lina, be­longs not to her cam­paign but to her su­per PAC. When voters search for “Carly Fior­ina” on Google, the first ad that pops up is for her su­per PAC, not her cam­paign. And on her re­cent New Hamp­shire vis­it, it was Fior­ina’s su­per PAC that was ad­van­cing her events, even sta­ging them with stick­ers and sig­nage.

“It’s a mod­ern ap­proach to the ways cam­paigns are done nowadays,” said Leslie Shedd, spokes­wo­man for Carly for Amer­ica, the pro-Fior­ina su­per PAC with a name so in­dis­tin­guish­able from the of­fi­cial Carly for Pres­id­ent cam­paign that the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion has de­man­ded they change it.

It’s also an un­charted ter­rit­ory with im­plic­a­tions and rami­fic­a­tions for the way the rest of the 2016 cam­paigns will be run.

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At a re­cent Iowa cattle call — Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” in Boone — Fior­ina busily shook hands and scribbled her sig­na­ture on bright red “Carly” posters. A hand­ful of staff and vo­lun­teers in red “Carly” shirts, in­clud­ing Shedd, buzzed about, clutch­ing clip­boards to sign up sup­port­ers and hawk­ing free “Carly” stick­ers. They were the paraphernalia and per­son­nel of her su­per PAC.

“The big fo­cus, es­pe­cially out here in our early states, is the ground game,” Shedd ex­plained. “It’s sign­ing up vo­lun­teers. Lots of sign­ing up vo­lun­teers, try­ing to spread the word in Iowa with Carly, really or­gan­iz­ing here on the ground.”

In con­trast, the of­fi­cial Fior­ina cam­paign had a far less vis­ible pres­ence — Fior­ina, two aides, and her Iowa state dir­ect­or.

(RE­LATED: Carly Fior­ina, Fem­in­ist?)

“They ob­vi­ously bring a ton of vo­lun­teers to events, which is fant­ast­ic,” said Flores, glan­cing over at the su­per PAC team work­ing the crowd. “And they’re great at brand­ing. The red t-shirts and everything, we love see­ing those.”

Whatever vo­lun­teers the cam­paign it­self said it had on hand were harder to spot.

The cam­paign and the su­per PAC can’t leg­ally strategize to­geth­er, or even plan who will show up when and where. The way Flores de­scribed it, the cam­paign sees it­self as ul­ti­mately re­spons­ible for all things Fior­ina 2016 but will ac­qui­esce when they spot the su­per PAC do­ing over­lap­ping work. (“We an­nounce en­dorse­ments, too,” she noted.)

“If we see something that needs to get done, we’re gonna do it,” Flores ex­plained. “If we see that that need is be­ing filled, then we can move re­sources else­where.”

The de­fer­ence comes down to cash. The Fior­ina su­per PAC is ex­pec­ted to have far more money: Fior­ina’s friends and former col­leagues in cor­por­ate Amer­ica (she was the first fe­male CEO of a For­tune 20 com­pany) can make only $2,700 in dir­ect cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions but can give un­lim­ited sums to the su­per PAC.

“The ac­tu­al Fior­ina cam­paign has to be a bit more ju­di­cious with its re­sources than the su­per PAC does,” said Keith Ap­pell, a vet­er­an GOP con­sult­ant and seni­or ad­viser to the su­per PAC.

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Since her time as CEO of Hew­lett-Pack­ard, Fior­ina has fended off at­tacks that she was an out­sourcer, but per­haps the most au­da­cious out­sourcing of her ca­reer is hap­pen­ing today, on the cam­paign trail.

Among the ba­sic tasks out­sourced to the su­per PAC is an­swer­ing ques­tions about Fior­ina’s ten­ure at Hew­lett-Pack­ard. Last month, the Fior­ina cam­paign re­ferred Wash­ing­ton Post fact-check­er Glenn Kessler to the su­per PAC to an­swer ques­tions about her re­cord at the tech­no­logy gi­ant. Kessler said such a re­fer­ral is “not com­mon,” and he couldn’t re­call an­oth­er de­clared can­did­ate who had done so. In fact, it was so un­com­mon that Kessler didn’t real­ize that his re­fer­ral to Carly for Amer­ica meant he was no longer speak­ing with the Carly for Pres­id­ent cam­paign it­self.

(RE­LATED: Fior­ina Scores Sup­port Of Anti-Abor­tion Lead­er)

After pub­lish­ing his fact-check, Kessler had to up­date his story to say it was the su­per PAC, not the cam­paign, that had answered his ques­tions. “It shows how con­fus­ing it can be,” Kessler said in an in­ter­view.

“[A] big thing that we’re go­ing to fo­cus on is deal­ing a lot with Carly’s busi­ness re­cord. It’s ex­tremely ex­tens­ive. It’s very dense. And it can be some­what com­plex,” Shedd said. “Sarah and Anna [Ep­stein], with [the] cam­paign, they’re just two people,” she said of Fior­ina’s of­fi­cial press team. “You get lots of ques­tions. I think a lot of it is just provid­ing sup­port if they’re un­able to an­swer ques­tions and it’s something that we can.”

“If it’s something spe­cif­ic, like, how does Carly feel about X, Y, and Z is­sue of the day, that’s something that’s really go­ing to have to go through the cam­paign,” Shedd went on. “But any­thing that’s kind of provid­ing a lar­ger pic­ture about Carly and her back­ground, and why it is she’d be a great pres­id­ent will come through us.”

Such de­lin­eated and blen­ded re­spons­ib­il­it­ies can make the two groups ap­pear as if they’re work­ing hand-in-glove. Dur­ing her trip to New Hamp­shire last week, the su­per PAC was ad­van­cing Fior­ina’s own events. At both a VFW hall in Hud­son and a school in New Bo­ston, red “Carly for Amer­ica” posters, cour­tesy of the su­per PAC, ad­orned the walls and hung on the po­di­ums where Fior­ina was set to speak. The events had been pub­licly an­nounced.

But it is Fior­ina, with her su­per PAC provid­ing some of the fun­da­ment­al in­fra­struc­ture of a cam­paign, who is set­ting an im­port­ant pre­ced­ent for cam­paigns, big and small.

And, earli­er this month, the Fior­ina cam­paign emailed its sup­port­ers a link to a new video, titled “Mo­mentum,” that had been pro­duced by the su­per PAC. The cam­paign then em­bed­ded the su­per PAC’s video on its own web­site, along­side a con­tri­bu­tion form. It’s ac­tu­ally pos­sible to watch to the end of the video and see two dis­claim­ers on the same page: one identi­fy­ing the ad as paid for by the su­per PAC; the oth­er identi­fy­ing the page it­self as paid for by the cam­paign.

Su­per PACs have quickly evolved from groups that mostly pro­duced tele­vi­sion ads in 2012 to the cen­ter of can­did­ates’ con­sid­er­a­tions in 2016. Jeb Bush has as­signed his long­time chief strategist, Mike Murphy, to run his su­per PAC. Some of Scott Walk­er’s closest Wis­con­sin ad­visers are run­ning his. And it was the Ben Car­son su­per PAC, not the Car­son cam­paign, that op­er­ated a booth and helped or­gan­ize his straw poll vic­tory at the re­cent South­ern Re­pub­lic­an Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence.

But it is Fior­ina, with her su­per PAC provid­ing some of the fun­da­ment­al in­fra­struc­ture of a cam­paign, who is set­ting an im­port­ant pre­ced­ent for cam­paigns, big and small. It shows the new ways un­der­fun­ded can­did­ates can now com­pete, need­ing only a hand­ful of wealthy pat­rons. And it paves the way for a can­did­ate like Bush, who has a su­per PAC that is ex­pec­ted to dwarf the spend­ing of even his own well-fun­ded cam­paign, to del­eg­ate more au­thor­ity bey­ond the cam­paign.

“With every cycle, there are new strategies. There’s in­nov­a­tion. But in the end, it all gets back to the can­did­ate,” said Ap­pell, down­play­ing the Fior­ina su­per PAC’s im­port­ance. “If she’s a good can­did­ate, she’ll do very well. And so far, she’s an out­stand­ing can­did­ate.”

Des­pite the over­lap in their op­er­a­tions, the su­per PAC and Fior­ina’s cam­paign say they have stayed on the prop­er side of laws that pro­hib­it co­ordin­a­tion.

Can­did­ates and their sup­port­ive su­per PACs can’t plot strategy to­geth­er in private, but op­er­at­ives have be­come in­creas­ingly brazen about work­ing to­geth­er in plain sight, sug­gest­ing ad copy for su­per PACs, writ­ing pub­lic strategy memos with re­com­men­ded ad buys, and even op­er­at­ing an­onym­ous Twit­ter ac­counts to share polling data. The Fior­ina ef­fort — with its split press re­spons­ib­il­it­ies, del­eg­ated field work, and su­per-PAC-dec­or­ated cam­paign events — is a new twist.

The Fiorina campaign embedded a video produced by a pro-Fiorina super PAC onto its website as part of a fundraising pitch this month. (Screenshot) Fiorina for President, Fiorina for America

The Fior­ina cam­paign em­bed­ded a video pro­duced by a pro-Fior­ina su­per PAC onto its web­site as part of a fun­drais­ing pitch this month. (Screen­shot)The Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion is re­spons­ible for in­vest­ig­at­ing any al­leged co­ordin­a­tion between can­did­ates and su­per PACs, but the com­mis­sion’s own chair­wo­man called the agency “worse than dys­func­tion­al” earli­er this year. (She has also called co­ordin­a­tion rules “sadly murky.”) The FEC did send a let­ter on May 17 telling the Carly for Amer­ica su­per PAC that it had to change its name be­cause out­side groups can­not have the names of fed­er­al can­did­ates in them. (The lo­gos of both Carly for Pres­id­ent and Carly for Amer­ica, though dif­fer­ent col­ors, fea­ture Fior­ina’s first name, in all cap­it­al let­ters, with a star em­bed­ded in the ‘A.’)

Ini­tially, Steve De­Maura, a former Fior­ina ad­viser and cur­rent ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Carly for Amer­ica, said the su­per PAC had not de­cided how to re­spond. But the group later said it would ad­just its name — kind of. The group is fil­ing pa­per­work to be­come “Con­ser­vat­ive, Au­then­t­ic, Re­spons­ive Lead­er­ship for You and for Amer­ica.”

Bet­ter known as: CARLY for Amer­ica.

It is not clear how the FEC will re­spond.

Back in Boone, Iowa, at the Ernst “Roast and Ride,” or­gan­izers provided the Fior­ina cam­paign, and every oth­er 2016 speak­er, a booth to dis­trib­ute lit­er­at­ure and cam­paign swag. Un­like the oth­ers, the Fior­ina booth was dec­or­ated with su­per PAC “Carly for Amer­ica” bal­loons hung from the tent’s poles. The cam­paign says its own vo­lun­teers staffed the booth, but a roll of “Carly for Amer­ica” stick­ers could be spot­ted on the table throughout the event.

“Ob­vi­ously I didn’t know what they were do­ing out here,” Fior­ina said when asked about the su­per PAC’s big pres­ence.

So what did she think of it?

“It’s en­cour­aging,” she said as she walked away. “En­cour­aging.”

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