GOP candidates could make history in November
Rebecca Kimitch, Staff Writer
Posted: 03/22/2010 06:09:37 PM PDT

When Sarah Palin burst onto the scene in 2008 as the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee, it signaled the Democratic Party didn’t have a monopoly on women candidates with far-reaching ambitions.

Sure, 75 percent of the women in Congress are Democrats and Democrat Hillary Clinton has come closest to becoming a nominee for president. Some states have never elected a female Republican to Congress or the governor’s office, but a Republican could have shattered one of the few glass ceilings left.

In the end, it didn’t happen.

And the reality is female Republican candidates face challenges that Democratic women don’t.

In California, two Republican women are taking those challenges head on. In doing so, they are on a trajectory historically reserved for men – wealthy CEO turned politico.

Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, both in their mid-50s, made history in the business world and are now hoping to do the same in politics.

Whitman says her experience turning eBay from a small start-up to a Fortune 500 enterprise is a perfect training ground to run California as governor.

And Fiorina says her experience climbing the ladder from secretary to CEO of Hewlett-Packard gave her the necessary skills to navigate the U.S. Senate on behalf of the state.

Each is willing to wager some of their millions amassed in the business world to convince voters.

Billionaire Whitman has even said she’ll spend what it takes.

It might take that much, or more.

Their first challenge? They’re both liberal. Or so voters will think, regardless of their actual policies.

Republican primary voters assume women GOP candidates are more liberal than their male counterparts, regardless of reality, according to a Harvard University study conducted in the 1990s.

That could be particularly problematic in the June primaries, which typically bring out the most ideological – “conservative” in the case of the GOP – of voters.

The Harvard study’s conclusions are likely even more accurate now than they were in the ’90s, according to its author, David King, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“Turnout in primaries has decreased. Primaries have become more ideologically sliced. That is the toughest audience for female Republicans,” King said.

In the case of Whitman, perceptions of liberal leanings are partially true when it comes to social issues. She is pro-choice, even supporting public funding of abortions, and supports some gun control.

But the conservatism of her rival in the primary, insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, is hardly rock solid either. Besides the obvious GOP missteps of donating to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and not explicitly supporting George W. Bush for president in 2004, Poizner has historically been defined as a pro-tax moderate.

That is one reason Whitman won the endorsement of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, which cited her as the “only reliable fiscal conservative in the race.”

Yet Poizner’s swing to the right of late won him the endorsement of the conservative Republican Assembly, baptized “the conscience of the Republican Party” by President Ronald Reagan.

Still, Whitman is dominating in the polls – the latest Field Poll gave her a 49-point lead over Poizner – largely a result of the radio and television ads she has been running for months.

“I think voters generally look beyond gender and size up the candidates based on their plans and ideas for fixing our state’s great challenges,” Whitman said in an e-mailed response to questions.

It is less clear who will emerge the victor of the GOP’s Senate primary.

In perhaps a bid to ingratiate herself with the Tea Party crowd, Fiorina announced she shares Palin’s values.

“What I was talking about then was the fact that I, too, am a fiscal and a social conservative. What I’m focused on right now is my own race and defining myself as a candidate with my own voice and my opinions on the issues,” she later clarified in an e-mailed response to questions.

But one of Fiorina’s rivals in the primary, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, has already staked his claim as the Tea Party candidate. Those two could end up slugging it out for the party’s conservatives, leaving the third contender, Tom Campbell, a pro-choice moderate, to pick up what is left.

Outside their perceived policy stances, Whitman and Fiorina face other general challenges.

Despite years of electing women, voters still tend to question whether women have the necessary leadership skills, according to Ronnee Schreiber, author of “Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics.”

“There is an assumption … that there are certain traits people think you need to be a good leader – assertiveness, aggressiveness – things associated with masculine traits,” Schreiber said.

Furthermore, the Californian Republican party is still a party of white men, Republican political analyst Allan Hoffenblum said.

The state’s Congressional delegation is 38 percent women, but only one of those 21 women in Congress is a Republican, Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs. Both the state’s U.S. senators are women, but both are Democrats.

“We are working hard to expand the Republican Party to include more young voters, women voters, and minority voters. California is successful because of its vibrant diverse population. And if we are to succeed as a party, we must attract new Republicans who value limited government and personal freedom,” Whitman said.

But Hoffenblum doubts that the candidacies of Fiorina and Whitman are the result of any concerted effort on the part of the Republican Party to change that deficit.

“It’s more by coincidence than by design,” he said.

Schreiber agrees.

“Conservative party leaders are reluctant to put women in the primaries. So it will be interesting to see how these women play out,” Schreiber said.

Instead of a concerted party effort, Whitman and Fiorina’s candidacies are largely an outgrowth of the rise of women in business. They have become wealthy CEOs, so they can do what successful businessmen have done for years – make the leap to politics.

And they aren’t alone. In Connecticut, Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, is also making a self-funded bid at the Senate. And businesswoman Dana Walsh is attempting an unlikely take-down on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though Walsh is hardly a millionaire.

“This is the realization of the dream … It’s what Mary Tyler Moore envisioned … For Hillary Clinton, it wasn’t quite it because her entrance into politics was on the coattails of her husband … These women are doing it entirely on their own. This is the dream,” UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck said.

And though the executive- turned-politician trajectory doesn’t always work out – remember Al Checchi and Bill Simon? – putting women in the model may be more successful.

Voters like to see candidates who buck the stereotype, King said. Women who have had the most success at bids for governors’ offices have had experiences as states’ secretaries of treasury or attorneys general.

And in this climate where career politicians are hardly popular, being an outsider with no political experience could help, though CEOs rival politicians for the public’s low esteem.

“I think more than anything this year voters are looking for someone who isn’t a career politician – whether they are a man or a woman. Californians are tired of the same old big-government policies we’re so used to seeing coming out of Washington,” Fiorina said.

But their gender may help in this regard as well, according to Schreiber.

“One of the things that helps women is they are perceived as agents of change,” she said.

Despite her gender, that certainly can’t be said of the Democratic incumbent who would be Fiorina’s rival in the general election: Barbara Boxer.

And if Whitman advances to the general election, her Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jerry Brown, is hardly an outsider either.

“Like the men before, Fiorina and Whitman are trying to frame themselves as `corporate women’ rather than career politicians, an important distinction in a year where there is such anti-incumbent, anti-politician sentiment,” said USC political scientist Ange-Marie Hancock.

Whitman, who has a degree in economics from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard Business School, started her professional career at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. When she moved to San Francisco with her neurosurgeon husband, she began work at the consulting firm Bain and Co. She spent eight years there and eventually became vice president. She also held management posts at Disney, Stride Rite, FTD and Hasbro.

But her biggest claim to business fame came at eBay. When she started there in 1997, the company had 30 employees and $4.7 million revenues. Her own salary was a mere $100,000. A decade later, when she left, the company had 15,000 employees and nearly $8 billion in revenues.

“Time and again, I saw government get in the way of entrepreneurs and try to impose unnecessary barriers … I left eBay with a strong belief that government’s role in our lives should be limited and that we need a small, efficient government that advocates smart policy,” Whitman said of her transition into politics.

For her part, Fiorina boasts that she began her business career as a secretary and worked her way up to CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Along the way she got a degree in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford and an MBA from the University of Maryland.

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