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Whitman, Fiorina and McMahon: Spending big, failing bigger

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 10:50 PM

LOS ANGELES - Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Linda McMahon had a lot in common.

All sharp, successful businesswomen who made millions as executives in the private sector, they identified 2010 as an apt historical moment for a Republican candidate with no political experience to break into politics. In pursuit of higher office, each committed considerable resources - more than $200 million combined - to challenge seemingly vulnerable Democrats.

Each risk taker came up far short of her goal.

Whitman, the 54-year-old former chief executive of eBay, burned through more than $140 million of her own money in a colossal loss in the California governor's race to a former governor, Attorney General Jerry Brown. Also in California, Fiorina, 56, the former Hewlett-Packard leader, spent about $7 million of her own funds in a bitter Senate loss to the incumbent, Barbara Boxer. And McMahon, 62, who with her husband built the smackdown empire called World Wrestling Entertainment in Connecticut, spent $50 million in seeking an open Senate seat, losing to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

The question isn't so much why three savvy businesswomen threw so much good money after bad in losing ventures to win political office. In a year when voters overwhelmingly registered their dissatisfaction with Democrats and the unemployment-riddled economy, the candidates had every reason to consider the millions a sound investment. Instead, the question is how they failed so resoundingly.

"It's in some ways like a highly underdeveloped country that suddenly strikes oil and they don't know what to do with the money and start spending it unwisely," said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Baker said that money is a threshold requirement in politics, "but above a certain amount you don't get a dividend for every extra dollar."

"And when it's your own money, you cast aside some of the restraints and keep spending, to the point where you cast aside certain other aspects of the campaign that might be deficient," he said.

Whitman was the shakiest political presence of the three, and a colossal ad campaign could not correct that. Awkward on the trail and hounded by embarrassing reports that she had failed to vote most of her adult life and that her housekeeper was an illegal immigrant, she hired expensive media consultants, including chief strategist Mike Murphy, who made hundreds of thousands of dollars of Whitman's money and financed an onslaught of on-air ads aimed at women, Latinos and other traditionally Democratic constituencies. But the millions she spent to boost her appeal seemed to have the opposite result, as her likability dropped below where it had been when she started.

Both Whitman and Fiorina waited an exceptionally long time to concede to their rivals, the former expressing pride in her campaign as she called it quits in the middle of the night, the latter waiting until a Wednesday-morning conference call to admit defeat.

"We had an exceptional campaign," Fiorina said, blaming the loss on an inability to "overcome the registration advantage" Democrats enjoy in population centers such as Los Angeles. Ultimately, she refused to "engage in a game of coulda, woulda, shouda."

But there was plenty to second-guess in Fiorina's inability to drift back to the center after her sharp tack right in the primary. In contrast to most centrist California candidates, Fiorina stuck to her opposition to abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother's life; touted the benefits of offshore drilling; and championed gun rights.

Boxer pounced on Fiorina's positions on social issues and constantly linked the Republican to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who endorsed the GOP challenger.

And in a brutal economy, Boxer incessantly excoriated Fiorina's record at Hewlett-Packard of sending jobs overseas. Democrats sought to cast Whitman and Fiorina as one in the same: Silicon Valley executives who were trying to buy the election. Boxer, who had raised plenty of money in her own right, made sure California's television viewers got the message, and it clearly resonated.

"These women are trying to buy the election as if it's their birthright," chef Mark Peel, 55, said as he sat in the Tar Pit, an elegant art deco cocktail bar in West Hollywood.

Doug Kottler, a 45-year-old lawyer walking through the Grove shopping-and-entertainment plaza in Los Angeles, agreed: "What's refreshing is that the election couldn't be bought."

Kottler said he did distinguish between the two California businesswomen, although that hardly helped them. "I just looked at them and said 'Ugh' and 'Ugh,' " said Kottler, who added that he planned to vote the Democratic line the next day. "They didn't need to bring each other down. They were both in their own freefalls."

On the other side of the country, McMahon seemed to have an even stronger chance of filling Sen. Christopher J. Dodd's seat. "I am an outsider - I am not a career politician," she said in February. "What I hear over and over and over again is 'We want somebody with real-life business experience.' "

Ultimately though, Connecticut voters rejected the notion that her business experience had much to do with real life. She emphasized the "corporate skills" and not the "soap opera" quality of wrestling, but exit polls by Edison Research showed that the unsavory wrestling aura stuck. Half of voters polled said that the wrestling association weighed on their vote, and almost all of them - four out of five - said it made them unlikely to send her to Washington.

For all the obvious attention to the onstage antics, it was, to a certain extent, the real-world business experience that brought McMahon down. Just as attacks of heartless labor cuts hurt Fiorina and Whitman in California, Blumenthal pointed to her decision to send pink slips to 10 percent of World Wrestling Entertainment's workers.

For these three, good business was not necessarily good politics.

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