Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina framed themselves as the fresh face of the Republican Party, two leaders whose business savvy and gender had equipped them to help craft a new path for the shrinking GOP in blue California.
For months, the national spotlight shone brightly on the two former chief executives, whose wealth made them formidable threats to their opponents. But their dual losses on election day — Whitman by 12 percentage points and Fiorina by 9 — have raised doubts about their future viability in politics, particularly in California.
“What’s happened with CEO-type candidates is that have come in, they run and they’re like a great meteor flashing across the sky, lots of light,” said Tony Quinn, a Republican demographer. “All of the sudden, they go dark and they’re never heard from again.”
Both women’s campaigns said they had no plans beyond rest after a grueling campaign. But in their concession speeches, the candidates left the impression that they had unfinished business in politics.
“So the journey is ending, but our mission is not,” Whitman said Tuesday after losing to Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. “We did not achieve the victory we worked so hard for. But that is not a reason to give up on what’s most important. I believe if we all work together to demand change from Sacramento, a new California will rise.”
On Wednesday, when she conceded, Fiorina said, “The fight is not over, the fight is just beginning,” and added that she would continue her effort to make sure “that the American dream belongs to everyone and that the government works for us, not the other way around.”
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said that if the two women hope to carry out those goals through politics, “they definitely have some repair work to do.”
“Meg Whitman has to live down her reputation as America’s most expensive loser,” he said. In Fiorina’s case, even a strong performance on the campaign trail wasn’t enough to beat vulnerable Sen. Barbara Boxer.
“It’s hard to see how either of them would have an easy road back onto the Republican ballot,” said Pitney, a former national GOP official. “With abundant financing and during a Republican year, they still couldn’t win.”
If they decide to keep a hand in politics, observers said, the most likely roles for Fiorina and Whitman may be fundraising, advising or serving as surrogates on the trail for other candidates, which is how they both got their start in politics on the campaigns of Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney. Both were among the names bandied about as potential vice president candidates for McCain.
But Tuesday’s losses have quieted such speculation. The fierce battles in both their races amounted to a yearlong vetting process that exposed vulnerabilities that had not been as evident before they stepped into California’s political arena.
Despite their compelling personal stories about climbing up the corporate ladder to become among the most powerful women in business, Whitman and Fiorina lost among working women voters by 29 points and 25 points respectively, according to exit polls.
They also struggled to win the support of moderate voters — Whitman lost that group to Brown by 25 percentage points, according to exit polls, and Fiorina by 23 points.
Advisors to both Whitman and Fiorina blamed Tuesday’s losses on Republicans’ registration disadvantage in California. But other political observers of all stripes said their corporate backgrounds had created clear problems for both of them — albeit different ones.
Boxer lanced Fiorina with ads pairing layoffs and outsourcing under her watch at Hewlett-Packard with her multimillion-dollar compensation package. Brown painted Whitman as more concerned about her fellow billionaires than the common man.
“Both Carly and Meg had issues with their corporate background and it sort of gave them a glass jaw … all it takes is one shot and it breaks,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. “They both ended losing for the same reason and that is — it basically came down to a character-trust issue.”
At the same time, though Fiorina’s corporate tenure was far more controversial than Whitman’s, several analysts said she proved to be a better candidate.
She projected warmth and had fewer missteps than she had as a presidential surrogate in 2008, with the exception of being caught on an open microphone discussing Boxer’s hair. She charmed audiences, won over some conservative skeptics and overcame her initial fundraising problems — ultimately only putting in $6.5 million of her own money. In the end, Fiorina won 67,000 more votes than Whitman.
Whitman began her campaign cloistered from the media and facing questions about her spotty voting record. Though she grew more comfortable on the campaign trail, she was still widely viewed as cold and scripted. She showed more emotion when she shed tears the night of her loss than she had publicly during her 20-month-long campaign.
The former EBay chief stumbled frequently, from shaky debate performances to the revelation that she employed an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years. And voters grew weary of the unrelenting negativity of her ads.
Whitman’s juggernaut campaign, on which she spent $141.5 million of her personal fortune, is being castigated as a disaster. Her highly paid consultants underestimated Brown and were unable to take advantage of unlimited resources and the best political climate for Republicans since 1994. More Californians supported the legalization of marijuana than the election of Whitman.
The former EBay chief’s campaign staff has hunkered down, blaming the loss not on their own mistakes but on California’s demographics.
“Too damn blue,” said Rob Stutzman, a senior advisor.
Political observers say the likelihood of either candidate running for political office in California again is uncertain. But many expect to see them on the campaign trail in 2012. Whitman has said she would reprise her role backing her mentor, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney. Fiorina was endorsed by several potential presidential contenders, including Romney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but has not aligned herself with any of them.
Others noted that with their business backgrounds, either could be a future appointment for a Republican president, possibly a Cabinet pick.
“There are not that many Republican women who would be on a shortlist on any kind of appointment,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
Neither appears to have lost the taste for politics.
In one of her last television interviews, Whitman said she had no regrets about her record-breaking spending. On Wednesday, Fiorina showed she has perfected one important skill over the last year — dodging a question she was not ready to answer.
When asked whether she had any future political plans, she smiled and gave a final wave of farewell.
“Bye!” she said brightly, before stepping into a waiting SUV and being whisked out of sight. For now.