IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The failed Senate bid that haunts Fiorina's 2016 ambitions

With Fiorina poised to run for president, it’s this race that offers a singular window to Fiorina’s politics, personality, and the kind of candidate she’ll be.

Carly Fiorina says she's all but certain to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, spinning a business career and one previous political foray -- challenging California Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010 -- to argue she’s the ideal candidate to take on another powerful Democratic woman in a general election.

“If I run for president, it's because I can win the job and it's because I can do the job,” she said Sunday on Fox News, adding that there’s more than a 90% chance she’ll run.

But Fiorina lost her Senate bid resoundingly, raising eyebrows about whether her sole attempt at electoral politics serves as an effective springboard into a national campaign. And she’ll be parrying even more questions about her rocky tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, which has overshadowed efforts to cast herself as a sure-footed executive untainted by politics. 

The 2010 campaign

“Let me start with perhaps the most obvious question on your minds. What’s with the hair?” Fiorina asked, a hand on her head, where her extremely short strands of hair was just starting to grow back as she walked on stage to announce her bid to unseat Boxer, then a third-term incumbent.

Just weeks after undergoing aggressive breast cancer treatments – including a double mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy – Fiorina told the Los Angeles audience that she was cancer free.

“Most people assumed she was gonna wear a wig,” former campaign staffer Fred Davis told msnbc, recalling Fiorina’s remarkable drive and work ethic that meant she barely missed a day on the trail. “She campaigned for the United States Senate 100% bald," he said. "That is Carly.”

"We cannot elect another career politician who knows how Washington works but doesn’t know what leadership means"'

Fiorina campaigned ferociously, even running a bizarre, low-budget ad -- nicknamed “Demon Sheep" -- against a GOP primary rival that puzzled strategists and voters alike but earned the attention it was engineered to garner. With Fiorina now poised to announce a presidential bid as early as April, it’s this race that offers a singular window to Fiorina’s politics and the kind of candidate she’ll be in 2016.

"There are a couple of things I learned in that process," Fiorina told msnbc in an email. "One is that I love campaigning. I draw my energy from people."

Fiorina was viewed by many as a talented politician, but her business record, stance on abortion, and fundraising challenges tripped her up in the Senate bid – as did her political inexperience, which Fiorina still argues is an advantage.

"I do believe that ours was intended to be a citizen government and we have to engage folks where they are, build a robust ground games, and not leave votes on the table," she said in an email to msnbc. "If we want someone who can reimagine our government, then we cannot elect another career politician who knows how Washington works but doesn’t know what leadership means."

Before the Senate race, Fiorina worked in technology, most prominently heading up Hewlett-Packard Co. from 1999 to 2005 when the company’s board forced her out of the CEO position. Boxer and other critics hit Fiorina hard for layoffs, outsourcing jobs, and sluggish stock prices at HP, and she’ll face plenty more tough questions in 2016.

“Isn't that a record that you're going to get hammered with?” Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked Fiorina recently when discussing her likely presidential bid.  

Related: Carly Fiorina on chances she’ll run in 2016: higher than 90% 

“We took Hewlett-Packard from about $44 billion to $88 billion in six years,” Fiorina fired back. “We went from a market laggard to a market leader in every product category and every market segment. And we grew jobs. It is true that I managed through the worst technology recession in 25 years. You will remember the NASDAQ has only now recovered to its dotcom boom highs after 15 years. So, virtually, every technology stock was down over that same period." 

While Hewlett-Packard profits did grow substantially, in 2010 the Los Angeles Times struggled to back up Fiorina’s claim that she’d added U.S. jobs, instead finding indication that she’d more likely created jobs overseas instead. Those who campaigned against Fiorina say this kind of business record sounds familiar – and fallible.

“Republicans have to be concerned they’re going to repeat the mistakes of Mitt Romney with Carly Fiorina with the out-of-touch, wealthy candidate who made her mark laying off workers and shipping jobs overseas,” Boxer’s campaign manager Rosa Kapolczynski told msnbc this week.

“She was very defensive about her time at H.P. and you had the feeling she couldn’t believe someone was questioning her record,” she added. “We made it an issue, but it was also natural that she would have gotten asked questions because it was the only thing that she had done in her career.”

Longtime California Democratic strategist Garry South who volunteered on Boxer’s campaign said Fiorina will be hard-pressed to cast her record at HP in a positive light.

“People were so happy to see her go the stock prices went up when she went. I just don’t know how you turn that into a success story,” he said. Stocks rose 7% overall – down from an 11% peak -- the day Fiorina’s departure was announced.

Fiorina’s supporters believe she’ll find a way to better spin that record. 

“Laying off people and outsourcing is never a good thing when you’re running for office but it’s a good thing when you’re CEO,” Davis told msnbc. “There’s a H.P. today because of Carly. If she tells that story right, it’s a powerful message.”

A woman candidate

Fiorina’s gender is a key part of that business record -- she was the first woman to be the CEO of a Fortune 20 company -- and she has already made it an important part of her expected campaign.

“She’s got a good story, an interesting story in many respects. She’s a historical figure,” former campaign manager Martin Wilson told msnbc, recalling how Fiorina began her career as a secretary eventually working her way up to CEO. “Campaigning with her, [a] number of young professional women came up to her and said she was inspiration.”

GOP strategist Juleanna Glover, who has worked for the two previous Bush presidencies and is supporting Jeb Bush this time, said she is nonetheless excited for Fiorina’s candidacy and what it will mean for the party.

"Republicans have to be concerned they’re going to repeat the mistakes of Mitt Romney with Carly Fiorina with the out-of-touch, wealthy candidate"'

“The better she runs and excels, the better it is for Republicans across the board,” Glover said. “No matter who ends up as the leading Democratic contender, I think Carly will go miles to offsetting the perception that Republicans are in any way anti-women.”

With former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, Fiorina, as the only woman in the emerging field, has shrewdly cast herself as Clinton’s chief antagonist. It’s a well-played position, allowing Fiorina to take gendered jabs at Clinton while sidestepping accusations of sexism her male colleagues might get.

"She tweets about women's rights in this country and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights," Fiorina said of Clinton at this year’s CPAC. "She tweets about equal pay for women, but won't answer basic questions about her own office's pay standards—and neither will our president. Hillary may like hashtags, but she doesn't know what leadership means."

While some Republicans hope Fiorina’s gender could help the party combat Clinton’s mobilization of women voters, Democrats point out that Fiorina took a similar approach to battling Boxer in 2010, and it didn’t work. Fiorina also hurt herself in a hot mic incident that year, where she was caught mocking Boxer’s hair as “so yesterday.”

Fiorina campaigned as an anti-abortion advocate in 2010, a position that put her at odds with many voters in California, where the state’s Constitution protects women’s reproductive rights. On the national stage, Fiorina’s position could help her in states where being socially conservative is a pre-requisite to even be a part of the Republican political conversation.

Related: In Iowa, GOP women take aim at Hillary

“Never once did she say let’s do a poll and see what Californians think about this and I can speak out in a way that I can get the most [votes],” Davis recalled. “When campaign officials like me would like her to temper her voice … she won’t do that.”

Fiorina struggled with Latino voters, too, particularly after she voiced support for the controversial Arizona law that requires Latinos to carry proof of citizenship, a law that critics say invites rampant discrimination.

“Latino voters are a growing part of the electorate in California and around the country and Carly Fiorina and the [outside group] supporting her made a major effort to appeal to Latino voters on issues like abortion,” Kapolczynski told msnbc. “But in the end, Latino voters looked at her views on immigration and her record of shipping jobs overseas and rejected her.”

Not a Bush, not a Clinton

Fiorina is lagging far behind other likely 2016ers in name recognition, both on the Republican and Democratic sides. Boosting her profile will cost a significant amount of money, something Fiorina has struggled with in the past. That’s a serious liability for a potential presidential contender, who typically must raise hundreds of millions to be considered credible.

Wilson said Fiorina has the potential to raise money, with a Rolodex of 75,000 names and a network of technology executives across the country.

But she was badly outspent in 2010, raising and spending just over $21 million to Boxer’s $30 million, according to FEC data.

Fiorina donated $5 million of her own fortune to the 2010 race, and this year, she donated another half million, to finally pay the debts the California campaign still owed, largely to former staffers.  

Wilson said he was owed the largest sum – around $60,000 – and received a check in early February. 

"She paid it back and paid everybody in full," Wilson said. "Someone sent me a notification from the FEC that the committee has now officially closed. Obviously that was going to be a problem for her if she didn't get it resolved."