Caitlyn Jenner hopes to pull the same trick as Arnold Schwarzenegger: snatching away the governorship of bluer-than-blue California in the chaos of a free-wheeling recall election. So far, though, the voters are not buying it.
The Olympic track star and Kardashian step-parent has not lacked for media coverage since announcing her campaign last month. In the past week alone, she has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Fox News. She’s put out an introductory campaign ad positioning herself not as a Trump true believer – as many Republican candidates feel compelled to be these days – but as a “compassionate disrupter” who will shake the political establishment out of its complacency, much as Schwarzenegger promised to do in 2003.
Yet a new poll this week shows Jenner gaining little traction. Just 6% of respondents said they would vote for her, putting her far behind other Republican contenders including Kevin Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor, and John Cox, a businessman and perennial GOP candidate who in 2018 was trounced by the man they all want to unseat, Governor Gavin Newsom.
Schwarzenegger, by contrast, was the clear frontrunner from the moment he stepped into the 2003 recall, using appearances on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and on Oprah to build tension around the question of whether he would run at all and deploying the considerable communications skills he’d built up over decades of celebrity interviews.
Jenner’s media savvy is not quite so evident. She told Sean Hannity on Fox News that she wanted to “secure” the border wall promoted by Donald Trump. But when asked in a subsequent interview how she would do that when the border was not within the state government’s control, she changed the subject.
In voicing her frustration with California’s large homeless population, she created an unflattering Twitter sensation by talking about a fellow private plane owner who “can’t take it any more”.
She alienated many transgender Californians and their supporters by saying, more than once, that she opposes trans girls competing on school sport teams that match their gender. And, on Tuesday, she told Dana Bash on CNN that she hadn’t found anything to get excited about in the 2020 general election and went golfing instead of going to the polls.
The statement raised questions about her interest in California policy issues, in a year when high-profile topics such as cash bail, the rights of ride-share drivers, rent control and affirmative action were on the ballot. It also turned out to be untrue, as revealed when Politico dug up documentation showing that she had voted last November after all.
With Jenner apparently unaware that who votes and who does not is a matter of public record in California, a former Republican campaign operative, Jack Pitney, told Politico: “This is not someone who is serious about public life.”
Jenner’s struggles are about the timing of her celebrity candidacy as much as the content. California voters ended up deeply disenchanted with Schwarzenegger’s governorship, even if he remains personally popular, and have demonstrated in every election since 2016 that they found Trump’s own celebrity “disruptor” campaigns little short of abhorrent. (Trump lost California by about 30 points in 2016 and in 2020.)
They are also far from sold on recalling Newsom. The governor has taken his share of bipartisan criticism over his handling of the pandemic, and he provoked widespread outrage when he was caught dining at Napa Valley’s premier restaurant, the French Laundry, in violation of his own lockdown rules last November. But the threat of the recall has spurred him into moving much faster to reopen the economy and the state’s public schools. Now that the pandemic is receding and 36% of Californians are fully vaccinated, his approval ratings are back above 50%. Almost every poll predicts he will survive the recall challenge.
A candidate of Schwarzenegger’s charisma could potentially upend that support between now and election day, expected in October or November. But Jenner appears to have just a small political base . Only 13% of Republicans back her, according to this week’s poll, and she has little crossover appeal to Democrats. Her poor initial showing is likely to lead to problems with fundraising and courting the endorsement of Republican leaders in and out of California.
For now, the “Caitlyn for California” wine glasses are going for $35 a pair. It’s unclear, though, if anyone is buying.