As Election Day draws near, the race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Republican Carly Fiorina is closer than many pundits expected, with Boxer generally up by low- to mid-single digits in polls, but Republicans are confident that Fiorina can eke out a win. The campaigns and outside groups (mostly aiding Fiorina) are spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads that frame the race in starkly contrasting ways.
For Fiorina, it's a referendum on a polarizing, unpopular senator's performance and a lousy economy. For Boxer, the election is a choice between herself and someone she depicts as an unacceptable alternative. But sorting out the truth is not so easy. Here's a guide to some of the main claims each candidate is making about the other (or about herself) over the airwaves.
A summary of Boxer's charges: Boxer has spent much of her ammunition attacking Fiorina's controversial reign as Hewlett-Packard's CEO, an effort to undercut Fiorina's bona fides on the critical issues of jobs and the economy. The senator portrays Fiorina as a heartless corporate executive who slashed tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. and sent their jobs overseas, all the while enriching herself. Boxer also has attacked Fiorina's views on noneconomic issues such as abortion and the environment, calling them too extreme for California.
A summary of Fiorina's charges: Fiorina has painted Boxer as an arrogant, out-of-touch career politician whose support for more federal spending and higher taxes has left a trail of devastation for workers and the economy. Fiorina has said little about herself, but she has appeared in several ads and presented herself as a fresh alternative to Boxer -- an independent thinker who's willing to stand up to her own party.
The charge: As HP CEO, Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers and sent jobs overseas to China and other countries, while collecting more than $100 million for herself.
The reality: The individual charges are factually accurate, though they do not tell the full story, and they paint Fiorina in the worst light possible. HP filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show about 33,000 employees were let go during Fiorina's time at the helm. And Fiorina has spoken frequently about the company's expansion abroad, at times defending off-shoring as a matter of corporate survival. What Boxer neglects to say is that layoffs and outsourcing over the past decade in Silicon Valley were hardly unique to HP. Some of Boxer's own campaign supporters, including Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers, could be accused of having done the same thing.
Boxer also neglects to note that Fiorina's turnaround strategy at HP -- huge acquisitions and relentless cost-cutting -- eventually succeeded in making it the largest technology company in the world. One can only guess whether HP would have reached such heights had Fiorina been given more time at the company -- she was fired after clashing with company directors, and her skills as an executive are still widely criticized today -- but her broader vision has been largely vindicated by time.
As for Fiorina's pay, there is no question she left HP a very wealthy woman, though nowhere near as rich as gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. HP proxy statements show Fiorina earned more than $100 million during her tenure. About two-thirds of that, though, was in the form of various stock offerings, the value of which is impossible to tally.
Senate financial disclosure forms, which require asset values to be reported in broad dollar ranges, indicate Fiorina is worth about $30 million to $125 million.
The charge: Fiorina's positions on many issues make her "too extreme for California." Specifically, Boxer says Fiorina opposes an assault weapons ban, favors new oil drilling, would slash Social Security and Medicare for seniors, and wants to outlaw abortion.
The reality: The senator does have factual support to argue that Fiorina is more conservative than most Californians on several issues. Fiorina has said that she would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, leaving the legality of abortion up to individual states; that she supports offshore oil drilling (though would not seek to override California's opposition to it); and that she opposes the now-expired federal assault weapons ban because of the "arbitrary" way it defined which weapons were outlawed.
All those views appear to be at odds with those of a majority of Californians (the weapons ban, however, has not been tested in recent public polls). Boxer is on shakier ground on the Medicare and Social Security claim. Fiorina has not called for specific cuts to either program, instead saying she is open to reasonable reform ideas that wouldn't harm current or soon-to-be retirees.
Fiorina has called for a strict cap on federal spending, which Boxer argues would necessitate large cuts to entitlement programs. Although Boxer's charge isn't supported by specific facts, Fiorina has exposed herself to such interpretations of her position by calling for smaller government but steadfastly refusing to say which federal programs she would cut.
The charge: Boxer voted to add trillions to the deficit and supported billions in taxes, contributing to high unemployment in California and the nation.
The reality: It is true that Boxer has voted for higher taxes and for measures that have added to the federal deficit. Perhaps the most controversial of the latter was her vote for the $814 billion federal stimulus bill -- although that bill contained substantial tax cuts. The senator also backed President Bill Clinton's 1993 budget plan, which raised income, gas and other taxes.
And Fiorina includes in her tax charge Boxer's vote for the health care reform law approved earlier this year, which will impose fines on many businesses and individuals if they don't obtain health insurance. Opponents including Fiorina have labeled those mandates a tax.
But the cause-and-effect that Fiorina draws between Boxer's votes and California's economic woes is more tenuous. Though economists have varying views about the effect of the stimulus, several credible ones say the recession would have been even deeper without the spending bill.
Among them is Mark Zandi, of Moody's Analytics, who advised John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid and has argued recently that the national unemployment rate would have been two percentage points higher without the stimulus. Still, it is true that the stimulus has failed to live up to arguments about its effectiveness that Boxer and other supporters made when it passed.
The claim: In a pitch for independent and moderate voters, Fiorina says she's prepared to oppose the Republican party "when it's wrong."
The reality: Though perhaps she would evolve into that kind of senator, Fiorina has given little indication she would be a "maverick" in the Senate, hewing closely to the Republican Party position on virtually every high-profile issue during the campaign.
Lately, her campaign has pointed out examples where she disagrees with her party: She would allow gays to serve openly in the military, for example, and she favors President Barack Obama's education reform efforts. But by and large, to the surprise of many political observers, she has run as a mainstream Republican.
Contact Mike Zapler at 202-662-8921.