Caitlyn Jenner Is Running for Governor of California

Can Caitlyn Jenner follow Arnold Schwarzenegger’s celebrity path to the governorship? It’s unlikely. Photo: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

Former Olympian, Kardashian-adjacent reality-TV personality, and transgender rights activist Caitlyn Jenner has confirmed rumors that she is entering the likely contest to replace California governor Gavin Newsom if he is recalled by voters later this year. According to Axios, she’ll make it official with an announcement event and a paperwork filing. Her Twitter account is already campaign-ready:

The 71-year-old Jenner is a longtime Republican who is surrounding herself with figures from Trump World, although her gender identity and “socially liberal” views make her an unlikely object of MAGA devotion:

She’s assembled a team of prominent GOP operatives including Tony Fabrizio, the top pollster on Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, and Steven Cheung, a former Trump White House and campaign communications hand who worked on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful 2003 recall campaign …

Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale, a personal friend of Jenner’s, has helped her assemble her team but doesn’t plan to take an official title on the campaign. 

What we can discern of Jenner’s message so far reflects standard-brand
Republican complaints about high taxes, COVID-19 lockdowns, and “one-party” Democratic rule in Sacramento. But quite obviously celebrity — and curiosity — will be the jet fuel of her campaign. A campaign adviser tells Axios that Jenner has greater name ID than Newsom and can command the kind of earned media that “will go to every possible demographic you could think of.” And it probably doesn’t hurt her in California that Trump (whom she criticized for his administration’s regulatory stance on transgender bathroom access) will likely keep his distance from her campaign.

Technically, the recall election remains a possibility rather than a certainty pending county certification of petitions by April 29 and a lengthy period in which signers can withdraw their signatures. But everybody in California politics thinks the election will happen, probably in November. There are already three well-known Republicans who have announced for the “replacement” phase of the two-ballot-line election (which will only matter if a majority of voters agree to recall Newsom): former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, 2018 gubernatorial candidate John Cox, and former congressman Doug Ose. The bigger problem for Republicans is that the state is far more Democratic than it was when a 2003 recall of Gray Davis made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor. Polls have consistently shown a majority of voters opposing the recall, and no major Democrats have jumped into the replacement contest. If the COVID-19 pandemic ends and the economy booms, Newsom could be unbeatable.

Aside from the possible futility of the whole recall exercise, the big challenge for Jenner is to frame her candidacy as similar to Schwarzenegger’s: a celebrity outsider with no loyalties to anyone other than frustrated voters. Otherwise, she is likely to be treated by the media and other opinion leaders as a mere novelty candidate, like former porn star Mary Carey, who was on the ballot in 2003 and is running again this year. California’s extremely low threshold for appearing on the ballot in statewide recall elections means there will be a lot of such publicity-seeking candidates, though presumably none of them will have been on a Wheaties box like Jenner. She will need to convince voters that she’s had all the publicity she needs or wants and has serious plans for the state. But it will be an uphill climb to a respectable candidacy, even for a former gold-medal-winning Olympic decathlete.

Caitlyn Jenner Is Running for Governor of California