LOS ANGELES – Caitlyn Jenner has been an Olympic hero, a reality TV personality and a transgender rights activist. Her next step could be candidate for California governor.
The 71-year-old longtime Republican has been consulting with GOP advisers as she considers joining the field of candidates hoping to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a likely recall election later this year. Jenner has spoken to Dave Rexrode, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, about a potential run, a spokesperson for the organization said.
The celebrity activist, who described herself as “economically conservative, socially progressive” in a People magazine interview last year, immediately would stand out in a field that so far has failed to attract a nationally known contender. Her potential run would come nearly two decades after the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Republican who used his Hollywood fame as a springboard to the state's highest office in a 2003 recall election.
Still, a potential run by first-time candidate Jenner also has spotlighted the many unknowns about her positions on critical issues facing the nation's most populated state, from how she would manage the coronavirus pandemic to slowing a homelessness crisis.
If the recall qualifies for the ballot, as expected, voters would be asked two questions: first, whether Newsom should be removed from office. The second would be a list of replacement candidates to choose from, if more than 50% of voters support removing Newsom from office.
The effort has been largely fueled by criticism of Newsom's handling of the pandemic. Republicans who have announced their intention to run include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 governor’s race.
Jenner is evaluating key questions in a possible candidacy: Is she ready for the rigors of a statewide campaign, the pressure to raise tens of millions of dollars and ultimately, can she win? said people familiar with her plans or who had conversations with those advising her but were not authorized to speak publicly.
The team around her includes former President Donald Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who is helping Jenner assemble an inner circle; longtime Republican strategist Ryan Erwin, a veteran of California and presidential politics who would become the campaign's general consultant; and GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren.
California Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon declined to comment on a Politico report saying she would serve as the campaign's general counsel.
“My understanding is she is in the research phase, trying to assess her chances, trying to understand the pathway to victory,” said Jim Brulte, a former chairman of the California Republican Party. He has not spoken directly to Jenner.
Jenner made headlines in recent years with her back-and-forth relationship with Trump, who remains broadly unpopular in California outside his GOP base. Trump lost the heavily Democratic state to Joe Biden in November by over 5 million votes.
Jenner supported Trump in 2016 but later criticized his administration’s reversal of a directive on transgender access to public school bathrooms. She also criticized Trump after he said transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.
As an untested candidate in a potentially crowded field, it's difficult to predict what her coalition of supporters might look like. Republican social conservatives, for example, might be hesitant to line up with a transgender candidate.
Newsom, who as San Francisco mayor ignored the law and issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, has close ties to the LGBTQ community.
It's also not known what role Trump might play in the election, if any, and how the GOP donor community that is crucial to funding a campaign would react. Jenner also could face questions about a 2015 fatal crash in which she rear-ended two cars. A 69-year-old woman was killed when her car was pushed into the path of an oncoming Hummer.
In a typical election, Jenner, as a Republican, would face long odds in a state dominated by Democrats. But with dozens of candidates expected to join the ballot in a likely recall election, the threshold to win would be far lower with the vote divided among many contenders.
Jenner's celebrity status would be an advantage in what could be a chaotic two-month campaign. She's widely known from shows including “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and the spin-off “I Am Cait.”
With multiple candidates, California Republican national committeeman Shawn Steel said it's possible that a winner could top the field with as little as 20% of the vote.
Jenner “is not to be discounted at all,” said Steel, who has not spoken with her about the race. If she enters the contest, “Caitlyn adds a whole new level of excitement.”
It’s not uncommon in California for residents to seek recalls, but they rarely get on the ballot — and even fewer succeed. Recent statewide polling has suggested that Newsom would hold his office.
County election officials are reviewing the signatures submitted by recall organizers to determine whether it will qualify. The vote likely would take place in the fall.
Axios first reported Jenner’s interest in running, and Politico on Thursday first reported her conversation with the Republican Governors Association and the hiring of several prominent Republican consultants.
A representative for Jenner could not immediately be reached.