Caitlyn Jenner came to the Republican Party of Orange County to make a case that electing her as governor would be a push for current conservative values, not a new episode of reality TV.
All state legislators, she said, should be part-time workers. Former President Donald Trump’s border wall should be completed. And all new regulations, whatever they may be, would be frozen in place if she’s elected.
“About two months ago I bet you didn’t see this one coming, did you?” Jenner told a packed Hilton hotel ballroom in Costa Mesa late Monday.
“Full of surprises…”
None of the 51 challengers for California’s top seat this fall, when voters are expected to decide whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, have gained major traction. Most polls and experts predict Newsom will survive the election — particularly given the state’s increasingly rosy outlook when it comes to health and economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
That uphill view is true for Jenner, too. But a lifetime in the public eye gives Jenner the most name recognition of anyone in the race so far, and political experts say that can be a serious advantage.
Jenner is only the latest in a long line of celebrities who have tried to parlay fame into political power. Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Trump all won elections, in part, because they were well known; Cynthia Nixon, George Takei and Antonio Sabato Jr. did not.
Even when viewed against those past examples, Jenner’s status is unique — a fact that USC political science professor Dan Schnur said makes her political prospects tough to predict.
“There’s never been an Olympic champion turned reality TV star turned transgender activist running for governor,” he noted.
Jenner first became famous after winning the gold medal for the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She became a household name again in the early 2000s after she started appearing with her family on the reality TV show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
And Jenner’s fame jumped again in 2015, when she came out as a transgender woman. She changed her first name, launched her own short-lived reality show “I Am Cait,” and became vocal about advancing equal rights for transgender people.
So far, Jenner is polling fourth among the GOP’s four major recall candidates. Her candidacy pulled 6% support in a May survey from Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, while former GOP Congressman Doug Ose had 14% and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former gubernatorial candidate John Cox each got 22%.
Jenner also trails those competitors, and is far behind Newsom, in fundraising. Her campaign has raised nearly $300,000, which includes $10,000 each from Newport Beach tech millionaire Fariborz Masee’s investment firm and from Chris Jacobsen’s Santa Ana-based wealth management firm. Neither responded to requests to discuss their support for Jenner.
Of course, Jenner also has a personal fortune to fall back on, with an estimated net worth of some $100 million.
While Jenner initially drew criticism for launching her campaign without any specific policy proposals, she has started using her website and appearances to lay out broad plans to address affordable housing, homelessness, pandemic recovery and lowering tax rates. She has shied away from interviews with major California news outlets, choosing instead to talk politics on national TV shows such as “The View,” on Fox News, and at county-level GOP events.
During Monday’s speech to the Orange County GOP, Jenner said she’d float a ballot measure as governor that would “make all legislators part time and cut their six-figure salaries in half.” The crowd broke into loud applause. But Newport Beach-based political consultant Adam Probolsky responded to the proposal: “Great idea if you want to empower the bureaucrats and lobbyists.”
Jenner, who brought a film crew to the speech, also proposed an “immediate freeze on all new regulations,” adding that she wants all regulations reviewed or dumped every 10 years. And to get one new mandate passed, she said she’d want three existing regulations to go — a proposal that law experts said Tuesday was legally questionable.
Cutting regulations would help address affordable housing and homelessness by allowing more building to take place, Jenner said.
She praised the progress California has made since she first moved here 48 years ago in improving air quality and said she is “all for the environment.” But she slammed “environmentalists” and said protections can’t come “at the expense of business.”
When it comes to immigration, Jenner said she’d “use state funds on state land to finish the wall.” She made vague comments about a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, saying “I am good friends with a lot of them.” But Jenner also said, “If you are arrested in this state and you are an illegal alien, you’re gone. Sorry, you’re out of here.”
Jenner said she didn’t blame Newsom for shutting everything down at the beginning of the pandemic, when we didn’t know much about COVID-19. But she said seeing children running around with masks on “drives me crazy” and that kids should have been back in school months ago.
The first person Jenner said she called as she was debating whether to run for governor was Schwarzenegger, who she met in a gym in 1975. She said Schwarzenegger was encouraging, telling her a gubernatorial campaign was a “good idea.”
Jenner has less political experience than her key competitors. Instead, like Trump, she’s pitching herself as an outsider and a “disrupter.” But that lack of experience has lead to some gaffes in the early weeks of Jenner’s campaign, such as when she discussed the state’s homeless crisis by referencing a friend who owns a private jet hangar near her own in Malibu.
Jenner’s support for Trump, despite his 2017 ban on transgender people serving in the military, and her vocal opposition to allowing transgender girls to play girls’ sports, have drawn opposition to her campaign from some LGBTQ advocates.
Los Angeles-based Equality California, for example, put out a statement saying that even though they support the election of a transgender governor they strongly oppose Jenner’s candidacy. The organization noted that Jenner has supported Trump’s policies regarding LGBTQ rights and then hired his former campaign manager.
“After Trump banned transgender troops from serving in the military, attacked transgender students and even tried to allow homeless shelters to turn away trans women, Caitlyn STILL hired his former inner circle to run her campaign,” Equality California said.
“Californians — and transgender Californians, in particular — understand all too well the risk of electing another reality TV star who cares more about fame and money than civil rights, healthcare and the safety of our communities.”
While support around civil rights for transgender people continues to grow, the issue still exposes sharp divides along party lines.
Some 87% of Democrats support allowing openly transgender men and women to serve in the military, but only 43% of Republicans surveyed by Gallup earlier this year felt the same way. And while 55% of Democrats believe transgender athletes should be able to play on sports teams that match their gender identity, Gallup’s poll showed only 10% of Republicans agree.
Jenner’s high-profile candidacy might help nudge open the door for more transgender candidates from all viewpoints to run for office, said Lynn Vavreck, an American politics professor at UCLA. But when it comes time to vote, Vavreck said celebrity status is less important to voters than whether that candidate is promoting policy ideas that will help build the world people from those communities want to live in.
Vavreck also said that when it comes to weeding out candidates who are running to get attention or promote personal projects, voters are more sophisticated than they’re sometimes given credit for.
“Candidates who are serious, who have ideas that they believe in and they care about — who are willing to work hard and put in the effort — voters recognize all of those things,” she said.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were fine with Hollywood stars running for political posts in an April survey from consumer research firm Piplsay.
A similar percentage said they think celebrities can be successful politicians if they either have the right aptitude or have the right team in place, while a quarter of surveyed Americans said either that “being famous is not enough” or that “their lives are way too different.”
Jenner still has time to lay out a policy agenda that could prompt voters to take another look at her campaign, Schnur said, with the recall election now expected to be held in mid-September.
“A candidate that’s recognized for something outside of politics, whether it’s entertainment or sports or business, is going to get a larger window of opportunity to make their case,” Schnur said.
“But they have to find a way to take advantage of that opportunity.”