Importance of Whitman and Fiorina

The importance of the California victories of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina cannot be exaggerated. The fact that these two candidates now threaten to overcome California’s Democrat-registration advantage should offer hope and inspiration to Republicans everywhere, particularly to GOP women seeking office as well as to candidates from the business community.

Make no mistake about the worthiness of these two winners. Both Whitman and Fiorina won against quality opponents. In their own ways, each overcame significant impediments to triumph. The two races were very different, of course, the gubernatorial contest being a spend-a-thon slugfest and the Senate competition more given over to free media that was debate-driven. But at the finish line these candidacies represented two parallel and comparably impressive achievements.

Both candidates hail from the private sector, thereby representing a major breakthrough for corporate candidacies. I have long followed the successes and failures of business candidacies, and can promise you there have been far more of the latter, particularly on the Republican side. And given the anti-corporate sentiment that accompanies some of the economic bubble-bursting that has gone on in the past 18 months, one could have reasonably surmised that these candidates might have stumbled. Their opponents hoped so, spraying voters with every real or imagined shortcoming in the performances of eBay and Hewlett-Packard during and since their tenures as CEO. But the survivors emerged from the campaign car wash tunnel with their pantsuits barely mussed. Even in these days of wrinkle-free fabrics, it was impressive.

The two conservative candidates are also notable for winning in spite of allegedly failing a few right-wing litmus tests. Movement conservatives complain that Fiorina didn’t oppose the Obama stimulus and healthcare plans, wouldn’t say whether she’d overturn Roe v. Wade, supports taxation of Internet sales and supported Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the high court, among other alleged sins. Whitman supposedly strayed from orthodoxy by once donating to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and some liberal environmental group, being pro-choice, fuzzy on the Second Amendment and not backing an Arizona-style immigration law in California. Somehow, someway, these two ladies convinced enough conservatives (mostly men) to overlook those actions out of respect for their solidly conservative bona fides on most other issues. A lot of other center-right candidacies have failed this test.

It is possible that Whitman and Fiorina were able to follow a less ideologically pure route to nomination precisely because of their business background as CEOs. Whitman, for example, made the point that she aided Boxer solely because the Democrat helped eBay on blocking Internet taxation. As a researcher for Whitman, I observed that voters, even devoutly conservative ones, listened and seemed to accept that someone in the business world operates according to rules that are different from those of the political realm. Steve Poizner, coming from a more political background as California’s insurance commissioner, wasn’t given the same leeway. As a politician, he was held more accountable for straying from orthodoxy. It’s probable that businesswoman Fiorina was also given some benefit of doubt with regard to certain issue positions, purely because of her business background.

The one area the two may be perceived as most alike, gender, is in reality probably of no consequence. California has already had sp many powerful and influential female pols (Dianne Feinstein, Boxer, Nancy Pelosi) I sense there is no significance to “just another female” seeking office. California has always been ahead of the trends in evolving sex roles, even outside politics, so it’s no biggie a candidate is female.
The only newsworthy aspect of this pair is they are Republican businesswomen. It will be interesting to see how Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents respond to this last assault on a political glass ceiling.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.