Former Silicon Valley executive Carly Fiorina announced Wednesday she is running for the chance to seize liberal stalwart Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat, depicting the three-term Democrat as a Capitol Hill do-nothing who penned novels while jobs vanished and government spending soared.
The former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO's entry into the race could present California's junior senator with her most formidable re-election challenge, but Fiorina first will have to survive what could become a scalding Republican primary against state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who has worked feverishly to court GOP voters.
Fiorina described herself Wednesday as a Republican devoted to low taxes and tightfisted budgets and "a political newcomer who actually knows how to get something done."
"What do you say that come next year, we give Barbara Boxer the chance to become a full-time novelist?" Fiorina told an invited audience in Orange County, a traditional GOP stronghold.
"Let's start with living within our means. The rest of us do. Why not Washington?" she asked. She promised not to support higher taxes until Congress learns to spend responsibly.
Fiorina's announcement comes a day after Republicans took control of governors' seats from Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey, but Fiorina did not allude to those contests.
Boxer is no beloved figure in California, but she easily won re-election in 1998 and 2004. Any Republican will come to the contest with disadvantages in left-leaning California: Democrats hold a 13-percentage-point registration advantage, President Barack Obama carried the state in November by 24 points, and both of California's U.S. Senate seats have been in Democratic hands since the early 1990s.
California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton mocked Fiorina as "yet another millionaire neophyte in search of a new hobby," an apparent reference to former eBay Inc. CEO Meg Whitman, a Republican running for governor.
"The last thing Californians need in a U.S. senator is a failed CEO who was fired by her last employer," Burton said in a statement.
Hewlett-Packard's board fired Fiorina in 2005 after she pushed through the company's acquisition of Compaq Computer Corp. in a deal that cost jobs and reduced HP's value. The company has since rebounded, but opinions differ over how much credit Fiorina deserves for that.
Fiorina's name is familiar in the business community, but she is virtually unknown to most voters.
The 55-year-old served as economic adviser to John McCain's failed presidential bid last year, elevating her national profile, but an independent Field Poll last month found nearly three of four California voters didn't know enough about her to express an opinion.
Yet Fiorina has plenty of money to broadcast her message. She received a $21 million severance package when she left HP — a cash cushion that has made Boxer's team nervous.
‘Do a lot to distort the Boxer record’
Even before her announcement, Boxer used the threat of a Fiorina candidacy to boost her own fundraising, collecting $1.6 million in the last quarter and reporting $6.3 million in the bank last month.
"If Fiorina decides to fund the campaign with her own personal wealth, this could be the most expensive Boxer campaign yet," said Rose Kapolczynski, a spokeswoman for Boxer's campaign. "We could be looking at a $30 million or $35 million campaign. ... She could do a lot to remake her image with that and do a lot to distort the Boxer record."
Fiorina, who recently completed breast cancer treatment, gently teased herself about her close-cropped hair, apparently the result of chemotherapy. She said the cancer was behind her and "I feel absolutely great."
Boxer, 68, has long been a target of conservatives — they pounced earlier this year when she chastised a brigadier general who called her "ma'am" during a congressional hearing — but has yet to face a serious re-election challenge.
Until now, Boxer's only announced opposition was DeVore. A military officer and businessman from Irvine, he has been aggressively campaigning on a shoestring budget for months, styling himself as the only true conservative in the race.
‘It's really not conservatism’
He is appealing to the party's base as the true candidate of limited government, lower taxes and conservative fiscal stewardship.
DeVore said Fiorina is "attempting to sound like a conservative, and yet when you actually probe the depths of her conservatism ... it's really not conservatism at all."
Fiorina is the fifth Silicon Valley executive to compete in a statewide race in California next year. All three GOP gubernatorial candidates — Whitman, state insurance commissioner and high tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner, and former congressman Tom Campbell — have ties to the Valley.
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