California’s electoral technophobia

November 3, 2010, 3:22 PM UTC

Tech CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina seemed to have all the pieces in place to take advantage of the nationwide GOP surge. But with tin ears aimed at voters, they couldn’t even win their companies’ headquarters counties.

By Chadwick Matlin, contributor

Carly! Meg! What happened? You were both so promising. A dream team of former Silicon Valley CEOs—female CEOs at that; Republican challengers in an election favoring Republican challengers; women who knew how to prevent bankruptcy in a state that’s on the verge of one. And now? Now pundits—including this one—are speaking about you in the past tense, as if your political defeat yesterday means you’ve also died. Maybe, for political purposes, you have.

You were the candidates with the highest business profile—unless you include Connecticut’s wrestling entrepreneur, Linda McMahon—and the Los Angeles Times still declared your races over the instant the polls closed. Did you really have to spend $200 million to prove that Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer can still break a sweat?

It’s tempting to say that you were both too rich and too bureaucratic to win in an economy like this. You are, after all, two former CEOs, otherwise known to voters as rich people who can fire people. But elsewhere in the country several former CEOs prevailed. Rick Snyder, the former CEO of Gateway is the next governor of Michigan. Rick Scott, a man who ran a company accused of Medicare fraud, looks like he has probably eked out a win in Florida.

So, what, or whom, should we blame on your defeat? Your pals in Silicon Valley are a good place to start. The Bay Area was as blue as ever. As of this writing, eBay’s (EBAY) home county, Santa Clara, voted 60% for Brown, the Democrat. And Hewlett Packard’s (HPQ) headquarters, San Mateo County, was just as left, with Boxer getting 65% of the vote. It’s these voters who were supposed to see both of you as more than just another Republican. They were supposed to regard you as one of them. But that didn’t happen. Maybe you should have spent some of your money on adapting Christine O’Donnell’s ad strategy.

Silicon Valley wasn’t a huge help during the campaign, either. Carly, you were overpowered by the number of favors owed Barbara Boxer. Reuters pieced together a comprehensive report on the Valley’s financial support, and found that you got only a third of the money that Boxer did from the tech industry. This is what happens when you run against someone who has spent 18 years representing the tech industry in Washington. (And also what happens when you cut 30,000 tech jobs at home, “right shoring” – Fiorina’s euphemism for off-shoring – those jobs to workers overseas.) Meg, you got more financial support, but in the end you didn’t really need it. You spent $141.5 million of your own money only to lose. If only the governor’s mansion came with a Buy It Now button.

Your struggles add the latest chapter to the odd relationship between politics and the Valley. California has never elected someone to be governor or senator who has extensive experience as a technology CEO. And there have been very few who tried—Meg, you dispatched the most recent, Steve Poizner, a former tech entrepreneur, earlier this year. And yet, as evidenced by Snyder’s win in Michigan, the tech industry carries sway outside California. There just doesn’t seem to be much interest within California.

Ironic, given that the Valley has become more of an attraction than ever for politicians not from California. President Obama, elected with the help of online fundraising, paid a visit to Steve Jobs and had dinner at Google exec Marissa Mayer’s house. Politico listed a host of other senators and congresspeople who have swung through for fundraisers or info sessions. And even Russian President Dimitri Medvedev came to San Francisco to offer his first tweet. In politics, talking to innovators is still innovative.

Maybe that explains your losses. Technology captures the public’s—and politicians’—imagination because it’s creative, not because it’s profitable. It’s only the business press that obsesses over Apple’s returns—the normal people only care about whether new iPod Nano’s features mean they have to find a spare $200. That iPods drive revenue is important – to Apple (AAPL). But it’s not inspiring to the average voter.

Both of you forgot that lesson. You ran as business leaders who proved their worth in the tech industry (At least until the HP board fired you, Carly.) Perhaps you should’ve run as technologists – lovers of innovation and making peoples’ lives easier – who went on to prove their worth as CEOs. Then again, that’s not what either of you really were, earlier in your careers. Carly, you came up as a manager at AT&T (T) and Lucent. Meg, you were in charge of marketing Mr. Potato Head before joining eBay. So maybe we should have known better about your chances. You were never going to be what the state wanted. But now, you’ll always be who they didn’t.