Carly Fiorina is looking like the insider's outsider candidate.
On the surface, it’s clear why the national political mood has swept her, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson to the top of Republican presidential polls. A former California technology executive, she has never held elected office, a profile that a plurality of Americans say they prefer to a candidate with gubernatorial or U.S. Senate experience.
Yet, as she recently demonstrated when otherwise-feuding Republican lawmakers showed up to see her on Capitol Hill, she also has Washington credentials that have won her fans inside the Beltway, even as she seeks the nomination with a strategy that makes the GOP establishment a frequent punching bag.
“I think she understands the way Washington works,” said Michigan Representative Candice Miller, who attended the meeting and recently became one of the first members of Congress to endorse Fiorina.
Miller rejected the idea that Fiorina is some kind of “creature of Washington,” but she has spurred big-time interest among those who walk the halls of Congress, judging by the 50 or so legislators who Miller said went to see her speak.
“Having been in Congress all these years, that’s a huge amount of members to take a look at a candidate—in the evening, after votes,” said Miller. “It was really the whole breadth of the Republican conference.”
Fiorina’s effort to appeal to the more ideological, conservative wing of the Republican Party shows in her stump speeches and platform.
“Ours was not intended to be a government governed by a professional political class,” she told a crowd of New Hampshire Republicans in April, a theme she has repeated throughout her campaign. “Sometimes people who have been inside a system for so long, they cannot see it for what it is anymore.”
She has proposed disruptive changes to Washington’s culture on issues such as hiring and budget negotiations, and she has capitalized on her outspoken criticism of Planned Parenthood by (carefully) supporting a strategy to force a government shutdown over public funding for the organization.1
Yet Fiorina is no political neophyte, either. The daughter of an influential federal judge, she served on advisory boards to the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency and hit the stump as a surrogate for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, hardly a darling of grassroots conservatives. She challenged Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California in 2010, raising almost $16 million and securing endorsements from Republican luminaries like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former first lady Nancy Reagan for the unsuccessful effort. After that race, Fiorina and her husband moved to northern Virginia, on the outskirts of D.C.
“She is certainly not an insider in the traditional political sense, but she certainly is not a naif who just came in off the pumpkin patch,” said Robert Deitz, a former NSA general counsel and counselor to CIA Director Michael Hayden who worked with Fiorina on both intelligence boards and is supporting her campaign. More people in the intelligence community might be ready to get behind her, Deitz said, especially as they see more of her political acumen and grasp of policy issues.
“She is a mainstream, albeit conservative, Republican,” Deitz said. “She’s not Donald Trump, for Christ sakes, or Sarah Palin.” (McCain’s campaign sidelined Fiorina after she criticized his pick of Palin as the vice presidential nominee.)
Among the many places to which her campaign schedule takes her, Fiorina and an allied super-PAC have poured resources into New Hampshire, an early-voting state that typically holds out more promise to establishment candidates than Iowa or South Carolina, and she’s garnered big endorsements and charmed crowds. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday put her in second place, behind Trump, with 16 percent support. Also on Sunday, Reuters reported that the billionaire Koch brothers now have Fiorina on their short list of potential beneficiaries along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, citing three people close to the megadonors.
“The establishment’s clearly going to be very comfortable with her” if she's the nominee, said veteran Granite State Republican activist Fergus Cullen. “She has some of that cross-over appeal.”
It all adds up to unease for some conservatives.
“If I had to pick, I would definitely put her more towards the inside, more towards the establishment,” said Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project, which has encouraged primary challenges to Republican lawmakers. “I think she’s definitely more from a corporate ideology and world view than the conservative grassroots has picked up on at this point.”
“She’s gotten away with great talking points,” Ryun said. “I think the more we find out about her, the more disenchanted with her the grassroots I think will become.”
Fiorina’s campaign doesn’t dispute that she has insider qualities but makes sure to highlight the other parts of her résumé.
“She believes its important for citizens to be involved in politics,” said spokeswoman Anna Epstein, “but her career has been in the private and non-profit sector.”
New York Representative Peter King attended the Capitol Hill Club event and often clashes with colleagues who urge confrontation with GOP leaders and Democrats in the name of principle (he called House Speaker John Boehner’s plan to quit a “victory for the crazies”). King said the mixture of Fiorina's history outside the Beltway and her tendency to talk about specific conservative policies, not just to use red-meat broadsides, might be her most powerful weapon.
She’s “an outsider with insider knowledge,” said King, who said he often texts with Fiorina and is thinking of endorsing her. “I think she has a real potential to unite the party and also be a strong national candidate.”