It was just 18 years ago that California voters ousted a Democratic governor and replaced him with a show-biz celebrity, which is one reason political insiders are taking seriously the improbable gubernatorial candidacy of Caitlyn Jenner.
As California’s best-known Republican transgender Olympic gold medal-winning reality-television star, Ms. Jenner is positioning herself as the candidate to beat in the field to supplant Gov. Gavin Newsom if voters decide to boot the lockdown-happy Democrat in the looming recall election.
Her first ad released Tuesday was an undisputed knockout. Conservative actor James Woods called it a “stunning breakout campaign commercial.” She followed it up with a one-hour interview Thursday on Fox’s “Hannity” that provided the kind of exposure her lesser-known competitors can only dream of matching.
“She’s got to be compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger because she enters the fray with a certain amount of star power,” said longtime Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book. “She comes in with a fair amount of, as we say in the business, name recognition.”
Democrats still flinch at the memory of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s victory in the 2003 “Total Recall” election that snuffed the political career of Gov. Gray Davis. The bodybuilder turned action hero won the contest with 48.6% of the vote.
So far, top Democrats are staying out of the current fray and are banking on Mr. Newsom’s ability to beat back the recall and make a runoff unnecessary. The leading contenders if Mr. Newsom does get the boot include Republicans John Cox, who lost to the Democrat in 2018; former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; and former Rep. Doug Ose.
All of them have more political experience, but none is as recognizable as Ms. Jenner, who shot to Wheaties cereal box-level fame in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal by winning the gold medal in the men’s decathlon while competing as Bruce Jenner.
She appeared for years on the hit reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” after marrying in 1991 matriarch Kris Kardashian, now Kris Jenner. They divorced in 2015, the same year now-Caitlyn Jenner came out as a transwoman.
“John Cox is not a well-known figure in California. Kevin Faulconer is well-known in part of California,” said Mr. Sragow. “And Caitlyn Jenner has the virtue of being a national TV star. Her background as an athlete, the Kardashian play, and all that. She has a pretty significant profile in the state, but whether that turns out to be a benefit or a curse, I think, remains to be seen.”
Perhaps the biggest political risk for Ms. Jenner is being dismissed as a joke candidate. She has never held political office — a theme that Democrats and media outlets are pushing by referring to the recall as a “circus.”
Mr. Cox inadvertently bolstered that perception this week with an ad campaign and bus tour featuring a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear. In addition, the list of other candidates includes former adult film star Mary Carey and Los Angeles billboard icon Angelyne, both of whom also ran in the Davis recall in 2003.
The Trump factor
The “Hannity” interview, taped at Ms. Jenner’s private airplane hangar in Malibu, received enormous press coverage. Much of the focus was on her support for President Trump’s border wall and her praise for Mr. Trump as a “disrupter.”
“What I liked about Donald Trump is he was a disrupter,” she told host Sean Hannity. “He came in and shook the system up, OK? A lot of people didn’t like that in Washington, D.C., but he came in and shook the system up. I think he did some things that I agree with, some things I didn’t agree with.”
It’s an intriguing strategy in California, where Mr. Trump lost big in the 2016 and 2020 presidential races. In 2020, he got just over a third of the vote in the state. But recall electorates can look very different from presidential electorates, and no one is quite sure who will turn out for the recall vote.
Ms. Jenner’s theme resonates with the base Republican voter. She has stressed the need to address the flood of illegal immigrants coming over the border under President Biden, who stopped construction of Mr. Trump’s wall.
“I would secure the wall. We can’t have a state, we can’t have a country without a secure wall,” Ms. Jenner said on Fox News. “You have two questions here. One is stopping people from coming in illegally into the state. And then the second question is: What do we do with the people that are here?”
She blasted the “hypocrisy” of Mr. Newsom’s widely panned November dinner at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant during the state’s ban on indoor dining and said she would lift the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. “It’s the hypocrisy of what’s going on. Yes, it is a dynasty, I guess you could say, in Sacramento. They’ve really been in charge for the last 40 years,” she said.
The governor has apologized for the dining incident and could benefit from new numbers that show California’s coronavirus infection rates are among the lowest in the country.
Ms. Jenner tackled the transgender issue by citing the need for those in high-profile roles to set an example.
“For me, as a transwoman, I think role models are extremely important for young people,” Ms. Jenner said. “Trans issues people struggle with big time. Our suicide rate is nine times higher than the general public. And for me to be a role model, for them, to be out there. I am running for governor of the state of California. Who would ever thunk that? We’ve never even had a woman governor.”
The post-interview snark focused on some first-time-candidate flubs. Ms. Jenner said at one point that she was “pro-illegal immigration” before Mr. Hannity caught her mistake. Her reference to a friend with a nearby hangar who is moving to Sedona, Arizona, because of California’s homeless problem also struck a discordant note.
“Also, unlike you, Dems are focused on the 99% of people who don’t own planes or hangars,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat.
The state recall ballot has two questions. The first asks whether the voter wants to recall the incumbent. The second, which becomes relevant only if the first passes, asks voters to choose from a list of replacement candidates. The candidate with the most votes wins, even if no one breaks 50%.
In other words, if Mr. Newsom loses the recall vote, then his successor could be ushered into office with a fraction of the electorate, a system that favors the best-known candidate on what is expected to be a lengthy list. In 2003, the recall ballot had 135 names — but only one Schwarzenegger.
“It’s certainly at this point a very long reach to imagine that Caitlyn Jenner will be the next governor of California, first because at the moment most insiders believe that the recall’s going to be defeated,” Mr. Sragow said. “But if the recall is successful, then the fact that you just need one more vote than whoever comes in second is very significant.”
So far, the numbers favor the incumbent. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released in March found that 40% would vote to recall Mr. Newsom and 56% would vote against the recall.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, stressed the importance of winning Trump voters, even in California.
“For a candidate like Caitlyn Jenner to win, it has to be like a layered cake. The bottom layer has to be Trump supporters,” Mr. Whalen told AP. “Where do you go to get Trump supporters? Simple. Sean Hannity.”
For all the political activity, no election date has been set because the recall is not yet official. Those who signed the petition to oust Mr. Newsom have until the end of the month to remove their names, although the recall campaign submitted 1.7 million valid signatures, well above the 1.49 million required to trigger a special election.
Some of her fiercest opposition has come from progressive LGBTQ advocates, even though Ms. Jenner, if elected, would be the first transgender governor in U.S. history.
Her critics cite her opposition to allowing male-to-female athletes to compete in girls’ sports. Activist Charlotte Clymer has called her “a hateful person” and “the Phyllis Schlafly of the trans community,” but Ms. Jenner said she shrugs off such comments.
“I move on,” Ms. Jenner said in Thursday’s interview. “I want to be a role model and be a leader, and I think the most important thing as a leader that you can do is your compassion, your honesty, and I think that sometimes is very lacking in politics.”
She added, “I want to be an example to all people, not just trans people.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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