In late 2010, polls showed Carly Fiorina within a point or two of beating California's Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer. The Republican candidate was impressing on the trail and gaining traction with voters, much like she is now as a Republican presidential contender.
And then the attack ads began.
“Thirty thousand Californians lost their jobs,” the narrator of an ad released in mid-September said of Fiorina’s legacy as CEO of the Silicon Valley tech giant Hewlett Packard. “Fiorina tripled her salary, bought a million dollar yacht, and five corporate jets."
Her poll numbers dipped — and they never quite recovered. She lost the race by 10 points.
As Fiorina rises through the polls and emerges from the crowded GOP field, those looking to defeat her in will look to 2010 for a playbook of how her liabilities and strengths play in a race. But the stakes and the race are very different: Fiorina lost in a deep-blue state in 2010, and she's running in a far-right primary field five years later. And the layoffs that hit close to home in California are thousands of miles away from states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other early voting states that will help determine the 2016 GOP nominee.
In 2010, as one of Boxer's consultants tells it, the line of attack against Fiorina wrote itself.
Dan Newman of the Democratic firm SCN Strategies remembers standing backstage at the Senate race’s only televised debate when Fiorina listed off the countries she’d outsourced jobs to — “China, India, Russia, Poland,” she said.
“We had it up in a TV ad the next day,” he said.
Newman said the key liability for FIorina was her own financial gain and the company's spending amid those layoffs.
“She tried to talk about how she had to make tough budget cuts and make hard choices,” Newman told MSNBC. “But when people found out that while doing so she was buying herself a fleet of jets and yachts and tripling her salary ... the bubble quickly popped.”
In a memo last week, deputy campaign manager Sarah Isgur Flores offered a 10-point defense of Fiorina’s business record at length before going on to try to discredit one of her most visible critics for a disputed — and largely debunked — vandalism charge.
“Carly saved 80,000 jobs and grew to 150,000 jobs by 2005,” Flores wrote in part. “During her tenure, Carly doubled revenues to more than $80 billion, tripled innovation, quadrupled cash flow and more than quadrupled the growth rate. HP went from a Fortune 28 to a Fortune 11 company.”
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. A fact-checker declared Boxer's ad "Outsourcing" as "mostly true," adding notable context on the charges that hurt her campaign, like that her salary fluctuated dramatically every year, so much so Fiorina can also make the argument that it was 15% lower when she left the job than when she started. It did indeed triple from 2001 to 2002, when the layoffs occurred as the Boxer camp argued.
Flores fired back. "Barbara Boxer is part of the political class that has failed Americans on every festering problem in this country," she told MSNBC via email. "These are the games the political class plays. Americans are sick of it and they are ready for a leader who will challenge the status quo."
Newman said Fiorina’s current rise in the race is reminiscent of her 2010 bid.
“We’re at the same point of her trajectory in the Senate campaign. She tells her version of the story, starts rising, rises the level where she merits scrutiny and other facts,” Newman said.
Fiorina often forgoes lengthy stump speeches for audience-impressing marathon question-and-answer sessions on the trail. At an event this week in the key early voting state of South Carolina, she was asked to explain the wide criticism of her business.
“Yes, I’ve been widely criticized by Democrats and Donald Trump,” she quipped, and the crowd laughed.
“I work in the IT industry,” the man who’d asked the question responded. “People within my company criticize you also.”
Fiorina promptly launched into a carefully-crafted, full-throated defense of her record as the CEO of Hewlett Packard.
“Yes, some tough decisions were called for in very tough times, and honestly I think the American people want some tough decisions made in Washington as well," Fiorina said with a steely tone. “But I will run on that track record all day long,”