With 1.6 million state residents signing a petition in support of the effort, Californians will have the opportunity later this year to go to the polls and decide whether Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) keeps his job. The polling — Newsom’s approval numbers, views of the trajectory of the state, opinions of the recall effort itself — suggests a highly likely outcome: Newsom will stay governor.
There are no sure things in a one-off special election, of course. It’s possible that the voters who turn out will lopsidedly favor recalling Newsom. But the Public Policy Institute of California, evaluating the likelihood of Gov. Gray Davis being recalled in 2003, found support for ousting Davis at 53 percent weeks before the vote itself, in which 55 percent of voters supported his removal. PPIC’s most recent polling has the Newsom recall failing with 56 percent of the state opposing it.
It’s important to understand how the process works. There will be two questions on the ballot: Should Newsom be recalled and, if so, who should replace him? If the first question fails, the second one doesn’t matter. This isn’t a first-past-the-post contest in which the governorship is suddenly thrown wide open. For someone to replace Newsom, he has to be recalled first, and both polling and the state’s political composition suggest that isn’t likely to happen. This is a state that supported Joe Biden for president in 2020 by a 5-million-vote margin — about what George W. Bush earned in the state in total in 2004. It’s a much more blue state that views Newsom positively on net. The recall is unlikely.
Yet contenders to replace Newsom are emerging. Despite having to first overcome the odds of passing the recall and then beating out what’s likely to be a crowded field of opponents, there are people who think it’s worth the time and money to declare their candidacy. None has a higher public profile than Caitlyn Jenner.
Jenner is a former Olympian whose fame expanded thanks to her family’s reality show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” In 2015, Jenner announced publicly that she is trans, making her probably the best-known transgender person in the country. Now she hopes to be California’s governor.
She announced her campaign last month and released a cinematic ad this week touting her patriotism and pride in the state. On Wednesday, she appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program to answer various softball questions about her desired outcomes as governor.
It’s a pattern we’ve seen before, certainly, a celebrity hoping to parlay their fame into political power. In 2003, it was an effective path for Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Gray Davis. But as FiveThirtyEight pointed out, Jenner is not nearly as well known or regarded as Schwarzenegger, even as the odds of the recall passing are diminished.
What was particularly odd about the Hannity interview was the extent to which Jenner echoed the rhetoric of Donald Trump, certainly one of the less popular politicians in her state.
“What I liked about Donald Trump is he was a disrupter, you know?” she said. “He came in and shook the system up, Okay. A lot of people didn’t like that in Washington, D.C., but he came in and shook the system up.”
This “disrupter” label is one Jenner selected for herself, using it in that campaign ad. She did not have similarly generous things to say about Biden, who she described as “a 180-degree turn in our country, going the other direction, and it scares me.”
In March, 65 percent of Californians approved of Biden’s job performance, according to PPIC. In October 2020, only 35 percent of Californians approved of Trump.
Jenner also embraced unpopular policy positions closely associated with the former president.
“I am all for the wall,” she told Hannity. “I would secure the wall. We can’t have a state — we can’t have a country without a secure wall.”
In January 2019, only 28 percent of Californians supported building a wall.
You can see how this is all stacking up. Newsom isn’t likely to be recalled. Even if he were, Jenner isn’t as well position as Schwarzenegger was 18 years ago. While Schwarzenegger ran as something of a centrist, Jenner has chosen to embrace Trump, a robustly unpopular figure in the state.
All of which leads to an inevitable question: Why? Why this campaign and why this approach?
It’s possible that Jenner is simply getting dubious advice. She’s being advised by Brad Parscale, the man who shepherded Trump’s Facebook-heavy 2016 run. It was Parscale’s shop that produced that first Jenner ad, and it seems fair to assume that looping in core Trump staffers to advise her campaign might lead to an overemphasis on the utility of associating herself with the former president. (The benefits for the consultants in managing a wealthy person’s political campaign does not need to be explained.)
If her team believes what Trump’s staff did in 2016 — that being as Trumpian as possible was a way to boost base turnout — it’s possible that they may have convinced Jenner that being the candidate friendliest to Trump’s base will be an effective strategy for negotiating a crowded field of contenders. It worked for Trump in the Republican primary in 2016: His fervency built a loyal base that propelled him into first place, where he stayed.
But Jenner is not Trump, and the electorate in California is not the electorate in a national Republican primary. It’s not clear how Republicans or, particularly, Trump supporters view Jenner, but there’s no reason to think that she’ll command the same loyalty, given the broad inability of other Republican officials to do so in the Trump era. Instead, her ties to Trump have been cited as a reason to oppose her even from groups that one might think would be sympathetic to the candidacy of a transgender woman.
It’s also possible that Jenner is simply embracing Trump because she likes Trump. There’s certainly a lack of polish to her candidacy that might suggest she wouldn’t shy away from opining honestly even if it wouldn’t be particularly helpful. The single moment from her Hannity interview that attracted the most attention was when she lamented the sorry state of affairs in California — as evidenced by the complaints of the guy who owned the airline hangar next to hers. Maybe she’s just running because she thinks — Hey, I could do this — and her strategy is mostly to just be herself. That would certainly comport with the Jenner seen in “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” though it’s probably not going to result in becoming governor.
There’s another possibility, of course. Jenner spent years as part of that reality-television family and, after her transition, starred in her own, less popular show. It was canceled after two seasons. This gubernatorial run has a been a good way to reinject herself into the public conversation, a place where she clearly feels comfortable. Donald Trump made the transition from reality-television star to political pundit, signing on with Fox News for weekly appearances in the years before his presidential run. Maybe this path is available to Jenner as well.
Or maybe Jenner is following both of the trails blazed by Trump and Schwarzenegger. Maybe she’s going to surprise us all with a robust base of support that leverages a collapse in Newsom’s effort to fend off recall and emerge at the top of the field. Maybe she’s adeptly walking the narrow path forward, deploying a strategy that will actually work.
For every political candidate, that’s always the bright shining light they see ahead of them, the possibility that in this moment, for them, everything will fall into place. For a former Olympian who navigated her personal transition in front of a massive American audience broadly unfamiliar with trans issues, this goal may seem more attainable than it would for others.
It probably isn’t.