Christine O'Donnell was ecstatic on election night. The winner of the Republican primary in Delaware was happy and beaming and passionate -- she's a natural in front of television cameras -- as she celebrated her unconventional win. Watching that image, Chris Matthews on "Hardball" announced, "I think she beats out Carly Fiorina in the likeability department."
I suppose it depends what your meaning of likable is. I like candidates who know who they are and appear completely comfortable in their own political skin. That pretty well describes Fiorina, the Republican nominee for Senate in California.
But Matthews was onto something undeniable. While Fiorina was one of the original "Mamma grizzlies" endorsed by Sarah Palin and the pro-life organization Susan B. Anthony List, the image doesn't quite seem to fit for the former CEO. She's not a perky takedown artist from Delaware. She's not an exotic (to us lower 48ers) lipsticked pit bull from Alaska. She isn't easily labeled.
Hers is a "a solid, conservative economic message that find common ground with the independent women voters on economic issues for the general election," as Mercedes Schlapp, mother of four girls, media consultant and veteran of the George W. Bush administration, sees it. And Fiorina also happens to be a pro-life, pro-marriage conservative, running against, three-term incumbent Barbara Boxer, a foremost advocate of legal abortion. But Fiorina doesn't make those the most prominent aspects of her campaign. She simply seeks to bring her life experience to the political table in service of the people of California.
"Carly is not running away from her views, but chooses to stay focused on the issues that matter most to voters," Marty Wilson, her campaign manager, explains. "Because of Carly's background as a business leader, she is afforded the best of both worlds. Values voters are comforted by her views, and economic conservatives can be assured that she won't support new taxes and believes the unbridled growth must be halted."
That dynamic played out in the candidates' first debate. Sen. Boxer hyperbolically thundered: "If my opponent's views prevailed (on abortion), women and doctors would be criminals, they would go to jail. Women would die, like they did before Roe v. Wade." But Fiorina calmly and beautifully explained that her own family life brought her to her position. She added that she recognizes "that not everyone agrees with me on this." And reminded voters "I recognize as well that the most important issue right now in this election is the creation of jobs and getting our government under control." She went on, again in response to a question, to defend and explain why she opposes federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. Fiorina gave a plug for more promising adults-stem-cell research and didn't miss the opportunity note that: "Senator Boxer voted against a ban on human cloning." It's hard to cast anyone else as extreme, as
Boxer has, with that record.
Fiorina used the debate as a teachable moment, not just a battle of sound bites. And it wasn't just pro-life me who was impressed. A Los Angeles Times review gave her high marks for her grace under fire.
And while Boxer, funded by Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List (a group that supports female pro-choice politicians and candidates) obviously thinks she can demonize Fiorina on these issues, it's not clear her strategy will have traction, even in California this year.
"In most polls, the race is a statistical tie," John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, observes, calling it "remarkable." "Though Republicans have sometimes done well in races for state government offices, California has long favored Democrats for federal office. No Republican candidate for president or U.S. Senate has won here since 1988."
It's remarkable because Fiorina is being outspent. It's remarkable because Fiorina is not running left or away from her staunchly held social positions. "Fiorina is doing well because California's economic woes are causing many voters to question the policies that Barbara Boxer supports," Pitney surmises.
Fiorina's strategy resembles Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's race in Virginia last year. His opposition tried to paint him as a right-wing Neanderthal. But as far as he was concerned, the race was about jobs, education, and transportation -- it's what Virginia needed in a gubernatorial candidate. McDonnell not only won in the purple commonwealth, he won 51 percent of full-time, outside of the home, working women -- even as his opposition insisted on emphasizing and demonizing a graduate paper he wrote on traditional gender roles.
For too long in the American politics, women have been approached as if they are ovarian-Americans, voting in a bloc with special interests that are well-tended to by the Democratic party and feckless Republicans. But the existence of pro-life Republican women of such variety and styles as Fiorina and Palin and Nikki Haley in South Carolina and all the rest this year helps bury that old conventional wisdom. Perhaps along with Boxer's Senate career.
And that, I suspect is why Chris Matthews went out of his way to point out how he is so not into Fiorina: because these pro-life women are everywhere. They're winning and they're connecting with anxious voters and they're not going away, even in California.