After Carly Fiorina won California’s Republican Senate primary, many analysts expected her to shake off her conservative mantle and make a lunge for the moderate middle in the general election against liberal incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer.
That’s not how it has played out.
Mrs. Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who’s seeking public office for the first time, hasn’t tweaked her positions in the slightest. She’s still as pro-life, anti-tax and anti-illegal-immigration as she was when she defeated two Republican challengers in June.
“Carly, unlike a normal Republican, who would track to the right in the primary and then go to the center, isn’t doing that,” said Los Angeles-based Republican political analyst Allan Hoffenblum. “She’s all over Fox News and [conservative talk show host Sean] Hannity. She’s really running a hard-core conservative campaign, not giving an inch.”
This may be the year of the Republican, but this is also California, where President Obama remains popular and Republican registration has plummeted to less than 31 percent of voters, a historic low. If there’s any place where Republican candidates can be forgiven for softening their tune, it’s the Golden State.
It’s too early to say whether the Fiorina strategy will pay off, but so far it’s keeping her in contention. After trailing Mrs. Boxer for months in hypothetical matchups, Mrs. Fiorina has inched ahead, leading 49 percent to 42 percent among voters who have decided on a candidate, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll released last week.
Still, Mrs. Fiorina’s run as a solid Republican can come as only good news to the Boxer campaign. In her previous Senate contests, Mrs. Boxer has played the right-wing card with aplomb, hammering her Republican foes for their politically incorrect stances on abortion and offshore drilling.
The problem this year is that social issues and the environment are taking back seats to the economy. California’s unemployment rate has climbed to 12.3 percent, with voters now less interested in saving the whales than saving their homes and jobs.
“In any other year, those [noneconomic] issues would count for a lot more than this year,” said Hal Dash, head of Cerrell and Associates, a Democratic political consulting firm in Los Angeles. “This year, people’s insecurities are about the economy and jobs. The economy has been a tsunami over California.”
The Fiorina campaign has attacked Mrs. Boxer for her votes for the Obama administration’s stimulus initiatives, saying the $814 billion spending package enacted last year has driven up the national debt while doing little to stimulate the economy.
“The two things Californians care the most about are jobs and out-of-control government spending,” said Fiorina spokeswoman Andrea Saul. Mrs. Boxer “has done nothing to bring jobs to California. The $800 billion failed stimulus plan didn’t deliver those jobs. Almost 400,000 more people are unemployed since it passed.”
Mrs. Boxer, meanwhile, has countered by using Mrs. Fiorina’s record at Hewlett-Packard against her, notably her decision at one point to lay off an estimated 30,000 employees.
“People are going to decide if they want to have me back, or if they want to elect someone who made her name as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard laying thousands and thousands of workers off,” Mrs. Boxer said this month at a candidate debate.
Mrs. Fiorina was forced out by the Hewlett-Packard board in 2005 and left with a severance package of about $20 million. “She took $100 million and made no sacrifices,” said Mrs. Boxer, who is seeking her fourth term in the Senate.
Mrs. Fiorina said she also has created jobs and made tough decisions to cut spending. At the debate, she noted that Mrs. Boxer opposes tax cuts and consistently votes to increase government spending.
“She is for more taxes. She is for more spending. And she is also for big government and elite, extremist environmental groups,” Mrs. Fiorina said.
In embracing her conservative credentials, Mrs. Fiorina is running against the tide of the state’s recent political history. It’s been years since a true conservative won a Senate or gubernatorial race in California, although none of the past contenders had Mrs. Fiorina’s considerable wealth.
“Unlike Boxer’s past opponents, who were basically penniless, [Mrs. Fiorina] is going to have the money to get her message across,” Mr. Hoffenblum said.
Mrs. Boxer, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle against the anti-incumbent mood sweeping the nation. Fully 50 percent of those polled in the Rasmussen survey reported unfavorable views of Mrs. Boxer, while 48 percent said they held favorable views of the senator.
Even though they’re far outnumbered by Democrats, California Republicans appear to be far more engaged this election season. Political forecasters say voter turnout will be key in races across the country.
“Barbara’s the kind of street fighter who appeals to some people but can also turn some people off,” said Mr. Dash. “The key to this election for Boxer is motivating Democrats to come out and vote. Right now, Republicans are very energized because they smell blood. They smell victory.”