California Senate: How Carly Fiorina Pulled Off Her Big "Upset" in the GOP Primary

With the dramatic move of pulling his remaining TV advertising yesterday, former frontrunner Tom Campbell effectively ceded next Tuesday's Republican primary for U.S. Senate in California to ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Fiorina reacted today by launching a new TV ad taking direct aim at incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer.

Campbell, a California fixture who's been a Silicon Valley congressman and professor at Stanford and Berkeley, led the race for the Republican nod to take on the embattled Boxer -- beneficiary of two fundraising trips to California in the past two months by President Barack Obama -- when he quit the governor's race and switched to the Senate race in January. His lead, due to residual name ID from two past Senate campaigns and favorable press coverage, continued for a few months after that. Prior to his move, strongly encouraged by billionaire Meg Whitman's camp, which wanted to remove a draw for moderate Republicans in the gubernatorial primary, Fiorina had been the frontrunner in the Senate primary.

Right after former Republican frontunner Tom Campbell pulled what was left of his TV advertising, ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina launched this new attack ad against Senator Barbara Boxer. She says Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment Committee, is more concerned with "the weather," i.e., climate change, than terrorism.

But Campbell, after a quick burst of fundraising for his Senate campaign died down, ran into trouble in March.

In a development that Whitman, perhaps envisioning herself as one of the "Golden Parachute Twins" this fall, undoubtedly did not like, the star of the state Republican convention turned out to be Fiorina. Campbell had a much smaller presence and was overshadowed. Worse still for Campbell, he struggled with his past involvement with a jihadist academic convicted of working with a terrorist group. He's had to change his story repeatedly to try to explain the controversy away.

In contrast, Fiorina's speech, delivered without a teleprompter (though she used some notes on a stool, to which she circled back from time to time), delivered in a theater-in-the-round set-up, was a big hit. As was the new film from "Demon Sheep" creator ad man Fred Davis. Featuring a giant Hindenberg head of Senator Barbara Boxer, floating across the country from Washington to California, making various pronouncements, it's a clever enough skewering of Boxer and promotion of Fiorina's pseudo-populist, anti-big government themes.

Zany ad man Fred Davis, creator of the notorious "Demon Sheep" video ripping Campbell on Fiorina's behalf as a fake fiscal conservative, amused the California Republican convention with his film of "the HindenBoxer."

For Campbell, in reality, it was pretty much downhill from there, despite still positive press coverage about his prospects. Now Whitman and Fiorina are out to lock down their big leads in the Republican primaries. That will give Republicans a pair of controversial CEOs at the top of their ticket after primary campaigns marked by constant tackings to the far right.

Let's review how this came about.

In April, Fiorina, dogged some by the third candidate in the race, far right Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, moved to garner more conservative backing and endorsements. And outside groups took advertising shots at Campbell on government spending, abortion, and guns.

In May, Fiorina really started moving. And Campbell clearly fell back.

She had just picked up big endorsements in the preceding week, including Sarah Palin, the moderately conservative New Majority California fundraising group, and big anti-abortion outfits. The night before, she turned in the better performance in the only major primary debate. And then her team, including zany ad man Fred Davis, announced two new TV ads.

They were both positive spots. There were, sadly, no demon sheep, nor was a HindenBoxer anywhere in sight. One is entitled "Work," positioning Fiorina as superior to Boxer in "making Washington work for California." The other is entitled "Jobs," casting Fiorina as superior to Boxer in stimulating the economy.

In a morning conference call, the Fiorina crew made it clear that their aim is to activate primary voters with a hard comparison of their candidate with Boxer, rather than primary rivals. When I asked why they weren't simply shooting down Campbell -- who in my view was extraordinarily vulnerable -- they made it clear that they preferred to go the positive route instead, stressing Fiorina as a tougher candidate to take on Boxer.

As I wrote that day, their decision may also have been because they didn't think Campbell had the resources to compete very effectively. Nevertheless, they did not suggest that they wouldn't go negative if need be.

Sarah Palin talks about her support for Carly Fiorina, touting her opposition to abortion and business regulation and support for guns.

On May 14th, I reported that the primary was breaking away from Campbell. Why? Because Campbell, who had been the frontrunner, kept canceling TV ad time he had reserved. He wasn't on the air then and had canceled the next week.

In contrast, I noted, Fiorina, who had closed the polling gap on Campbell, was on the air and was going up with a bigger buy the following week. And that she also had more money to spend.

By May 24th, a KABC/SurveyUSA poll had Fiorina opening a very big lead over Campbell, 46% to 23%. DeVore was far back with 11%.

Fiorina also had a big lead in last weekend's Los Angeles Times/USC poll. And yesterday, Campbell pulled what remained of his TV advertising, saying he would communicate with voters through the Internet and telephone contact.

This Fiorina ad talks about big government spending and the near demise of free enterprise in America.

It's a stunning development? Or is it?

I think Campbell was never a particularly strong candidate in the Republican primary. He isn't much of a moderate in reality, but in Republican primary terms, especially this year, he was too much of one.

He wasn't really a strong candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary, either, though he polled well in the early going. But there he was a dangerous candidate for Whitman. If she and super-rich state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner turned off voters with incessant attacks against one another -- which is what is happening now -- they might turn to Campbell. More realistically, with Poizner running even more to the right than Whitman, she would have moderate Republican votes for the asking. So long as Campbell wasn't in the race.

While Whitman's operatives employed coercion in their backfiring bid to get Poizner out of the race, as I reported here on Huffington Post, they employed persuasion to remove Campbell from the equation.

In December, according to well-informed sources, Whitman operatives began trying to influence people in the orbit around Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to persuade Campbell to switch out of the governor's race and into the Senate race. Campbell, whose varied career has included stints as a Stanford law professor and head of the UC Berkeley business school, had been the state finance director in the Schwarzenegger Administration.

In her only broadcast TV ad attacking Campbell, Fiorina slammed Campbell for not opposing tax increases and touted her endorsement by Sarah Palin.

The blandishments for Campbell included the promise of new backing and help with fundraising.

Campbell, though running relatively well in the polls for governor -- and probably the most dangerous candidate for presumptive Democratic nominee Jerry Brown in a debate -- had raised barely a million dollars. His only realistic hope of winning the Republican gubernatorial primary was to slide through if Whitman and Poizner savaged one another.

In the Senate primary, he could start off in the lead with residual name ID from two earlier Senate runs. There he would face only one rich candidate, ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and far right Orange County Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

Campbell listened to this and began seriously mulling the prospect of switching races. He did just that in January.

And when he made the move, he had newfound support.

But in the end, though he raised more money running for the Senate than he had running for governor, he wasn't able to build beyond that first flush of new support.

And so the line-up, barring the most bizarre sort of eventualities, is set. It will be Carly Fiorina vs. Barbara Boxer in the general election.

It should be a very interesting race. And that's a matter for another time.