WASHINGTON -- When Carly Fiorina first considered running for a Senate seat in California in 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) offered her a piece of advice.
"He said to me, 'Carly, you're going to have to learn to shamelessly ask for money,'" Fiorina recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post. "And I still remember that first phone call I made." She smiled, but didn't elaborate. "Suffice to say when you're running for office, you learn to ask for money pretty darn quick. It probably helped that I'm a business person, too, and I'm direct."
Today, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard brings her experience as a candidate and a CEO to the Republican effort to win back the Senate majority, as vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The NRSC's chairman, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), pointed out that Fiorina is the first person to hold the position who is not a sitting senator. In the coming year, he told HuffPost, her top priority will be "to expand our base of support, especially in the business community."
For Fiorina and the GOP, the stakes could hardly be higher. Republicans need to win only four seats to regain control of the Senate, and with 23 Democrats either up for re-election or retiring next year, political analysts acknowledge that odds favor the GOP.
"Republicans are really well-positioned this cycle, and Democrats are playing defense all over the map," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. "More importantly, though, it's not a Rubik's cube, where there's only one way to solve it -- there are a lot of roads [Republicans] could take to get to a majority," he said.
Democrats, for their part are relying on a combination of tactics and luck to maintain their narrow majority, and Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), told HuffPost the party is "strongly positioned to retain [the majority] come November." Among the Democrats' advantages, Shah listed "bloody Republican primaries, great [Democratic] recruits in key states, a strong fundraising advantage, incumbents and the DSCC."
But Senate races are notoriously expensive for both parties, and there are 33 of them in 2012 -- one third of the Upper Chamber. For Republicans, this is where Fiorina factors in.
"I never imagined myself at the NRSC," she said, "but John [Cornyn] came to visit me in California last spring, and he said, 'we really need you out there.'"
A month later, Cornyn visited Fiorina again, this time with a detailed proposal for her role at the NRSC. "I read it over and I thought, ok, I'm in," she said.
"Carly was a fantastic candidate last year," Cornyn told HuffPost. "She's so well-respected and has such a high profile ... I knew she would be a great asset [to the GOP]."
Not surprisingly, Democrats view Fiorina a little differently. Asked how her experience might play out in the 2012 Senate race, the DSCC's Shah referenced her tenure at Hewlett Packard and said, "Carly Fiorina got rich laying off American workers and outsourcing jobs." "Considering her record, it's not surprising that Republicans made her a poster child for their agenda."
But love her or loathe her, it appears Fiorina is in Washington to stay. This fall, she and her husband, retired AT&T executive Frank Fiorina, bought a $6.1 million brick house overlooking the Potomac in Lorton, Va., about an hour's drive from Washington.
"A lot of people don't know this, but Frank and I met and married in Virginia," Fiorina said. "We bought our first home here, and we have a daughter who lives here." Even after she moved to California to run Hewlett Packard in 1999, Fiorina and her husband kept a small apartment in Washington to stay in when they visited family. This fall, "with two grandkids here, we decided it was time that the big house be in Virginia, and the little house in California," she said.
But don't expect to see Fiorina setting up shop at the NRSC's headquarters on Capitol Hill. "A lot of what I'll be doing is traveling to meet with members of the business community and holding roundtable discussions," she explained. Thus far, she's already made several trips to New York and California.
At these events, she said, "the first question people ask me is often about the committee itself -- 'what is the NRSC?'"
"There's a lot of confusion about how these committees work," explained Cornyn, "and about how we spend money. Carly's been a candidate before so she can answer people's questions and relieve any anxiety donors might have about giving to a national committee. I also think she feels she had great support [from the NRSC] during her race."
"Support" in politics means cash, and Fiorina's Senate campaign received more than $7 million of "support" from the NRSC.
In addition to her status as a former CEO and candidate, Fiorina is also a veteran Republican donor, most recently as National Finance Chair of Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Moreover, unlike sitting senators, she isn't tied to the upper chamber's hectic legislative schedule, former Fiorina adviser and GOP strategist Liz Mair noted, "so she'll be able to focus her attention on the campaign in a way that sitting senators might not be able to."
Fiorina's flexible schedule could be especially useful to the NRSC this cycle given that its Democratic counterpart, the DSCC, doesn't have a vice chair, leaving chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) with a lot of responsibility on top of her duties in elected office. Shah, the DSCC spokesman, told HuffPost that reelection efforts are spread throughout the entire Democratic caucus, rather than concentrated in one or two chairs. "Senate Democrats are working hard to help the DSCC preserve our majority and already we've seen their efforts pay dividends," he said. "Our fundraising advantage is just one of the reasons why we'll be successful this cycle."
With congressional approval ratings at historic lows, Fiorina's status as a private citizen may mean she can more easily address GOP donors' frustrations over the bitter partisan gridlock in Washington. As Liz Mair said, "[Fiorina] will likely be able to speak her mind more freely [than a sitting senator would], without the usual horse-race type scrutiny of her each and every move."
"Donors right now are expressing concerns about the entire political process," Fiorina told HuffPost. "We have big problems, and there don't seem to be any solutions." The good news, however, is that "sometimes, this kind of frustration can result in apathy [among supporters], but right now, I see it motivating people," she said.
Some donors, she explained, "just don't realize how close we are to the [Senate] majority until I tell them, and we lay out the numbers, and they really understand what's at stake."
"With or without [a Republican in] the White House, the Senate is the body that approves legislation, and [approves] regulators and executive branch appointees," Fiorina said she reminds donors, "so the potential impact of a Republican majority in the Senate is enormous."
"A Republican House and Senate would set their legislative priorities on the floor and send them all the way to the president's desk, which would force the Obama administration to negotiate directly with Republicans," said Bonjean, the GOP strategist.
"The buffer that exists now between the president and congressional Republicans would be gone," he added, "and if Obama's still in the White House, it would definitely weaken him."
On Capitol Hill, Bonjean said, "there's a sense of inevitability" about a Republican Senate majority, and the result is "a [campaign] war going on inside the Senate chamber."
In this climate, neither party is willing to compromise, he said, because "Democrats want to pass their priorities, or if they don't pass, [they want] to campaign on them. But Republicans need to make the case that Senate Democrats are holding up solutions."
At this early stage in the campaign, Fiorina is more apt to speak about the two parties in terms of differing philosophies, rather than all-out battle, which reinforces her position above the fray of the trench warfare of congressional politics. But it remains to be seen whether she will maintain her thoughtful, informative tone through November of 2012.
As the election cycle heats up, political necessity may require that she strike a harder note, both with donors and potentially even with voters, as a surrogate in especially tough races. "There are a lot of different directions major donors could go in this cycle," said Mair, "and they want to hear specifics about all of these things from everyone."
Perhaps more than anything else, big picture perspective is what Fiorina brings to Republican donors right now. After all, she's been there, and if her message resonates the way she hopes it will within the GOP, there's no telling how far she can go.