During the same weekend where Jeb Bush and Scott Walker were swamped by supporters and a large chunk of the national political press corp in New Hampshire, Carly Fiorina embarked on a lower-key swing through Iowa. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO and 2010 California Republican Senate nominee met with GOP activists in central Iowa, touting her message of business leadership and unlocking potential for women. She also featured her anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric to much applause among the crowd at a Republican women event on Saturday morning.
After speeches at recent conservative gatherings like CPAC, Fiorina is quickly earning the reputation as Hillary Clinton’s harshest critic, no easy title to earn among the current Republican field of likely White House hopefuls. She slammed Clinton’s time at the State Department and her world travels, saying, “flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.” She also hit the recent Clinton email issue. “Hillary Clinton in essence in her press conference told us to trust her,” she said. “Trust her that the only emails she deleted were personal, trust her that she never received any classified information on her device. Unfortunately there’s nothing in her track record that suggests we should trust her.”
Anyone, however, can make critiques of the Clinton email story. What should worry Democrats and Clinton backers more is Fiorina’s message to female voters. She began her speech explaining her rise from a secretary to the top of the corporate world, promoting her experiences on female empowerment and leadership, then led that to her views on women’s political issues. “Every issue is a woman’s issue,” Fiorina said at the Republican women conference, in an implicit push back against Democrats’ advantage on women’s health issues. “He are half the nation, we are more than 50% of voters, and women care about jobs, the economy, national security, healthcare, education, immigration, all the issues.”
She took aim specifically at Democrats’ “War on Women” rhetoric and Clinton’s role in it. “She will want to play that gender card all day long,” Fiorina said. “Hillary Clinton said it is not enough to be a woman. You have to be a woman who believes – and then she went and ticked off all the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party. Only if you’re a woman who sides with us do you count.”
Most interesting were her comments on equal pay. Many male Republican candidates shrug off the left’s talking points on pay equality. Fiorina, however, sought to turn the argument back on Democrats. “What is really the biggest impediment to equal pay for equal work?” Fiorina rhetorically asked the crowd. “It’s called the seniority system.” Women struggle to climb a structured ladder when family responsibilities take them out of the workforce or bring them into it later, Fiorina argued. She then claimed that unions and government bureaucracy were the biggest culprits of seniority-based systems, saying she thinks the country should move to more pay-for-performance environments. Democrats, of course, would contest that view strongly and point to female employment percentages and pay rates in government employment compared to the corporate world, but it’s still a different type of message carried by the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company.
It’s possible to imagine how Fiorina could help Republicans slowly chip away at the large advantage Democrats enjoy among the female vote. Unlike easily-caricatured figures like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, Fiorina’s rise in the business world gives her better gravitas and a personality that engaged women could relate themselves to. Swing female voters may be more willing to listen to what Fiorina has to say about women’s issues beyond reproductive rights better than male politicians with histories of harsh anti-abortion rhetoric (though Fiorina has been staunchly on that side of the abortion debate as well). And her own life experiences would better inform her pitch to female voters than some of the evangelical-based candidates who run in personal circles where women don’t hold many leadership positions.
Many political observers aren’t giving her great odds of winning the nomination, even though Fiorina should have no problem standing out in a field full of men. It’s been suggested that she’s running for Vice President or a cabinet position, something not whispered of other long-shots like Rick Santorum or Bobby Jindal. Others have questioned her lack of political office-holding, though that same concern hasn’t stopped press appearances for people like Ben Carson.
Candidates with viability questions like Fiorina sometimes don’t go all-in on these presidential runs, but she’s already hired two Iowa staffers and remarked that one major lesson learned from her California run was that “the ground game matters.” So if she does announce in late April or early May, you could probably expect a legitimate Iowa effort. If and when she does run for President, political observers should keep a close eye on Fiorina. She could prove to be Hillary Clinton’s most effective critic, and also an essential figure in Republicans’ efforts to overcome their gender gap with women.
by Pat Rynard