Why Caitlyn Jenner should not be dismissed

Getty Images / Gregg DeGuire

Republican Caitlyn Jenner is looking to unseat embattled Democrat Gavin Newsom as California’s governor. At first glance, the prospect of the transgender former star of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians becoming the leader of the country’s most populous state may seem laughable, but history suggests it’s not so far-fetched.  

This, after all, is another one of those instances in which the media attention and name recognition that come from being a reality-TV celebrity could make all the difference. 

Jenner becoming the 41st governor of the Golden State is predicated on a recall election in the fall. Other Republican challengers include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox. Given the rules of a recall election, don’t dismiss the Jenner candidacy out of hand since the process works with the following questions: 

Question 1: Do you want Gov. Newsom removed? If a simple majority answers “yes,” he’s gone. 

It then goes to Question 2: Whom do you want to replace him? Winning only requires getting the most votes. There is no 50 percent plateau forcing a runoff, like we witnessed in Georgia in November. 

And that’s what makes this a crapshoot that Jenner could pull off, given her superior already-established name recognition and her ability to blot out the sun in the same manner candidate Donald Trump did in 2016, by dominating media coverage over any and all opponents. The former Olympic gold medalist also has shown that she knows how to sell a candidacy, courtesy of this much-lauded campaign ad released earlier this week. 


But can a reality-TV star actually win a major political race? Just ask Trump, who parlayed his years as a New York tabloid darling and a ubiquitous, controversial, thrice-married real estate mogul into a hit reality-TV show, “The Apprentice,” that generated huge profits for NBC. We all know what happened next, after that trip down an escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015. 

And well before reality TV, another member of the entertainment industry – Ronald Reagan – captured the California governor’s mansion by easily winning his race over Gov. Pat Brown (D). Reagan, a Democrat-turned-Republican, would cruise to reelection four years later. “The Gipper” hadn’t held public office before that run. 

Fast forward to 2003, when an action-movie star named Arnold Schwarzenegger was laughed out of the room upon announcing he was jumping into a special election after voters recalled California Gov. Gray Davis (D). The “Terminator” star blew away his opponents in topping the favored Democratic candidate, Cruz Bustamante, by 17 points. Like Reagan, Schwarzenegger, running as a Republican, went on to win reelection. 

Many of you likely are old enough to remember Gov. Jesse Ventura (R) – he of World Wrestling Entertainment fame – winning in Minnesota. Former “Saturday Night Live” star Al Franken (D) took a U.S. Senate seat in the same state. TV’s Jerry Springer was once mayor of Cincinnati. Clint Eastwood was a California mayor. Singer Sonny Bono served as both a mayor and a Republican congressman. Fred Thompson – who was great in “Die Hard 2” and other films, and in TV’s “Law & Order” – was a longtime U.S. senator from Tennessee and a 2012 Republican presidential candidate. 

You get the idea: Name recognition, particularly in off-year elections, can play a huge role in getting ahead of the field despite a lack of experience. 

But is Newsom really that vulnerable?  

A June 2003 Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll showed just 21 percent of likely voters approved of Gov. Davis’s job performance, setting the stage for his recall and providing a clear lane for Schwarzenegger, who burst out of the gate after announcing his candidacy on “The Tonight Show.” 

Compare Davis’s number with Newsom’s in a March PPIC poll, which had his approval at 53 percent despite the anger over extended shutdowns and schools fully reopening at a painfully slow pace. In the same poll, just 40 percent supported removing Newsom, while 56 percent said, “keep him.”  

It’s also worth noting that California, like the rest of the country, will likely be in a much different place come the fall. Mass vaccinations should relatively quash the virus; more than 50 percent of Californians have already received one dose. Schools should finally be reopened for in-person learning. Businesses should be back as well, dropping the unemployment number from 8.3 percent.  

So, can Jenner – who bills herself as “compassionate disrupter” in the mold of Trump – actually win this thing? 

History says California likes its celebrity governors, from Reagan to Schwarzenegger. And Newsom is presiding over the biggest exodus of people that the state has ever seen, according to United Van Lines, with 59 percent of moves being outbound, reversing decades of inbound residents.  

Democrats in the state are also increasingly vulnerable. For more than 20 years, no Republican congressional candidate had captured a California congressional district held by a Democrat. In November, Republicans took four. 

But California also is a state that rejected Trumpism in November by a nearly 30-point margin. And Gavin Newsom is no Gray Davis, if the numbers tell us anything. 

It will be a tough hill for Jenner to climb, no doubt. But don’t dismiss her candidacy outright. Because if we’ve learned anything in politics lately, from Trump to AOC, no position of power is safe.  

Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.

Tags Al Franken Cailfornia Caitlyn Jenner California recall Donald Trump Gavin Newsom Keeping Up with the Kardashians Kevin Faulconer

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