What Whitman, Fiorina and McMahon Can Learn from Corzine


Come November, voters will have the unique opportunity to elect to high office three women who are former chief executive officers at major companies. For Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman and Linda McMahon, their business backgrounds may prove to be more liability than asset.

The wealthy Fiorina and McMahon are running for the U.S. Senate and don't need the job's $174,000 annual salary. Whitman, a billionaire, would earn $175,000 at her dream job, the governorship of California. Nonetheless, all three women are spending tens of millions of dollars of their own money to get elected, an investment with a potentially horrible return. It's tough to appeal to populists, after all, with that kind of cash on hand.

Fiorina and Whitman were victorious in last night's primaries. As my colleague Sam Gustin noted, there is giddy excitement in the air. "Career politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., be warned: you now face your worst nightmare," Whitman said.

Who Will Still Be Sleeping Well in November?

Those career pols may not be the only ones facing nightmares.

Should they make it to Washington, Fiorina, Whitman and McMahon will be like the smartest kids in high school who arrive at an elite university only to find that everyone on campus is just like them. Some students at these colleges are unable to cope with that type of stress and wind up transferring. Those who make it learn to adjust to their environment. I am skeptical that these wannabe legislators will be able to go from being the boss to having millions of bosses in their constituents. (The odd Michael Bloomberg example, notwithstanding.)

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, tells DailyFinance that CEOs who run for poltiical office are "always shocked" by the differences between the political and corporate worlds. In politics, candidates must appear warm and friendly, while CEOs get ahead by stepping on people.

"In politics, some of that happens but it happens in private," Sabato says.

Of the three ex-corporate leaders, Sabato says Whitman has the best shot at winning because she is willing to pour $150 million into the campaign, the most money that has ever been spent in a run for office outside of a presidential campaign.

That's not to suggest that the three former CEOs have always flourished in the corporate world. Consider Fiorina's tenure as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ), which has been widely seen as a flop. She was unable to reach a consensus with shareholders angered by the failure of the company's 2002 merger with Compaq Computer Corp. The Associated Press noted that Fiorina was fired in 2005 because she "failed to slash costs and boost revenue as quickly as directors had hoped."

Whitman's time at eBay Inc. (EBAY) also had its rocky moments. She was initially hailed as a visionary, though eventually shareholders grew worried about slowing growth rates at the auction site. EBay sellers also grew disenchanted by rule changes they say made their businesses less profitable. Whitman was never able to give Wall Street a coherent reason for its $2.6 billion acquisition of Skype, which it sold a controlling stake in last year.

McMahon, the former head of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), has shown a knack for political skulduggery, as when she sicced the New York Times on Democrat Richard Blumenthal for his exaggerations about his military service. Whether the controversies around WWE -- steroids for example -- will taint her campaign remains to be seen. The latest polls show Blumenthal ahead by double-digits.

Whitman, whose campaign spent $80 million (most of which was her money) on the primary, faces former Democratic governor Jerry Brown. Fiorina is seeking to oust the vulnerable Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. She spent $4.2 million from April 1 to May 19 on her campaign. McMahon has spent $16 million on her race so far and is prepared to shell out much more.

The Ghost of Corzine's Political Career Looms

Before these women write more checks they should consider the unsuccessful political career of Jon Corzine.

After being forced out of Goldman Sachs Group (GS) in 1999, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Frank Lautenberg (who in a strange twist of New Jersey politics later came out of retirement). He spent a then-record-breaking $62 million of his own money to win. Washington, though, was a tough place for the former Wall Street king. The chemical industry successfully fought his efforts to beef up government oversight in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He couldn't even get a resolution honoring Bruce Springsteen passed.

Corzine then jumped at the chance to be governor of New Jersey. Again Corzine dipped into his own deep pockets, spending $38 million to become the 54th leader of the Garden State. Like he did in his Senate campaign, Corzine argued that the skills he honed on Wall Street would benefit voters. That turned out to be true to a point and he did make some headway. Nonetheless, he showed he was out of touch with New Jersey voters. His stem cell research ballot measure and plan to privatize the New Jersey Turnpike flopped. He lost his bid for reelection to Republican Chris Christie and now is back in the financial world as head of MF Global.

The moral of Corzine's story? Being rich might help you win in politics, but it does not help you govern.