Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and California Senate candidate, is seriously considering a run for another high office: the presidency. That’s according to a source close to her as well as to detailed accounts by National Journal’s Tim Alberta and the Washington Post’s Phil Rucker and Matea Gold.
Fiorina is placing calls to influential Republicans to sound them out. Last week, the Heritage Foundation feted her at a private dinner in Washington, D.C., where she mingled with economists Art Laffer and Larry Kudlow, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, among others.
Among Republicans, the attitude about her entrance into what’s likely to be a crowded field is, for now, the more the merrier. In the age of identity politics and approaching an election in which the two Democratic frontrunners are women, there is also a strong feeling that having a woman in the presidential mix redounds to the GOP’s benefit.
Those familiar with her plans believe that if she can raise enough money to run, she is likely to do so. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if she jumped in, just based on some conversations I’ve had with her,” says one person who attended the Heritage Foundation dinner. “She’s really looking at whether she can raise the threshold money that’s necessary, and I think she feels pretty confident she can.” The same individual says that, as a matter of optics alone, it would be “hugely beneficial to the Republican party” if she ran.
“She’d be a valuable addition to the field, and could surprise,” says Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard.
Presidential candidates with CEO resumes have been rare — the last was Herman Cain, and before that Steve Forbes — and Fiorina’s business background is marked both by accomplishment and controversy. When she took the reins of HP in 1999, she was the first woman to run Fortune 50 company, and she became subject of admiring profiles in publications across the country.
But her fall was as swift as her rise. HP’s controversial 2002 merger with Compaq, spearheaded by Fiorina, resulted in thousands of layoffs, sent revenues plunging, and earned Fiorina the lasting enmity of both the Hewlett and Packard families. Should she run, this history will again be thrown under the microscope. (During her run for Senate against longtime incumbent Barbara Boxer, Boxer’s campaign website featured an entire section devoted to attacking Fiorina’s record at HP; one line read, “Let’s not forget that the HP board fired Fiorina early in 2005, and no company has hired her since.”)
Fiorina tried her hand at politics for the first time as a surrogate for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. She got a bumpy start when she told a reporter that no, McCain’s vice presidential nominee, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, could not run a large corporation. She tried to recover by adding that John McCain couldn’t, either.
On the campaign trail in 2010, she struggled to answer questions about her time at HP and stumbled the way many first-time candidates do: She was caught mocking her opponent and making off-the-cuff remarks about California’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman on a hot microphone.
“She’ll get shredded,” says one former campaign aide of her chances of success in 2016. “Her record at HP was disastrous and, you know, she ran ahead of Meg but, you know, Meg was a f—ing disaster.”
In recent months, though, stumping for Republican candidates across the country before the midterm elections, a different Fiorina has emerged, more polished and politically astute.
“In terms of clarify of message and positioning herself as a conservative, she’s come a long way, and I’m enjoying it immensely,” says Kudlow.
At the Heritage Foundation last week, she provided a preview of what her stump speeches might sound like. For a former Fortune 50 CEO, her message is surprisingly populist.
Big government and crony capitalism, she said, has been good for big business, but “small businesses cannot handle the crushing load of regulatory and bureaucratic inertia and regulatory thicket that government puts on them.”
She noted that she began her career as a secretary at a company that employed nine people. “That’s how most people start,” she said.
One person she’s interacted with at the American Conservative Union, where she chairs the group’s non-profit arm, has nothing but praise. “I have come to know her as a strong conservative,” he says. “She’s incredibly impressive and she has fantastic candidate abilities.”
No matter how good they are, her bid will be a longshot, and she’ll have to prove it.