California Governor Recall: Does Jenner Help or Hurt the GOP cause?

by Jacob Rubashkin April 26, 2021 · 12:50 PM EDT

Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic decathlete and current reality TV star, recently announced she is running as a Republican for governor of California in this year’s likely recall election. She joins former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and 2018 gubernatorial nominee John Cox, both Republicans, as the most prominent candidates in the race.

Ever since the recall effort against Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom went from being a conservative fantasy last year to a serious possibility and then likelihood this year, pundits and laypeople alike have drawn comparisons to the successful recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him.

Those comparisons have only intensified in the weeks since speculation began that Jenner would run, with Jenner occupying the Arnold role, the Hollywood outsider who leverages their prominence and the chaos of a recall into electoral success.

But there are a few key differences between then and now that make such comparisons shortsighted.

1. Gavin Newsom is not Gray Davis
Davis limped into 2003 as one of America’s least popular governors. He had just turned in a worryingly weak performance in his 2002 re-election campaign, defeating a little-known Republican by 5 points, 47-42 percent, and failing to secure a majority despite having won his first election by 20 points.

A February 2003 survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found Davis’ approval/disapproval rating at an abysmal 33 percent/60 percent among all voters, and an even worse 24 percent/72 percent among likely voters, numbers that would only worsen over the course of the year. Davis’ job rating was even underwater among Democrats, 41 percent approve/54 percent disapprove. 

Yes, Newsom has taken some real hits over the past year. In addition to the ever-present gripes that California Republicans have with their government (which have extended to his handling of the Covid-19 crisis), Newsom’s decision to shirk his own social distancing rules and attend a birthday dinner for a lobbyist at one of the state’s fanciest restaurants was an unforced error.

But while Newsom’s approval rating has come down from its highs in the mid-60s in the early days of the pandemic, the governor is still leagues more popular than his predecessor Davis. A March poll from PPIC found his approve/disapprove at 54 percent/36 percent. A January poll from Morning Consult pegged it at 51 percent/39 percent. A gloomier UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey from February placed Newsom slightly underwater at 46 percent/48 percent. But even that low water mark is significantly higher than Davis’ best numbers in 2003. And Newsom has stayed popular among Democrats; the March PPIC survey put him at 73 percent approval within his own party.

And unlike Davis, who scraped by in his previous election with a plurality win, Newsom thrashed Cox by 24 points in 2018.

2. California in 2021 is not California in 2003
In 2000, Al Gore won California by just 12 points, 53-41 percent. Four years later, George W. Bush consigliere Karl Rove insisted the state was in play, and Democrat John Kerry won by less than 10 points, 54-44 percent. In both instances, California voted roughly 12 points to the left of the nation.

In 2003, the Democratic voter registration edge in California was just 9 points, 44-35 percent. As late as 2010, the state played host to a competitive Senate race that drew national attention.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state by 30 points, 61-31 percent. In 2020, Joe Biden won by a similar 29-point margin, 63-34 percent. In both elections, California voted nearly 30 points to the left of the nation.

The last two Senate races, in 2016 and 2018, were GOP-free affairs. No Republican candidate in either race finished in the top two in the primary to move on to the general election.

And the Democratic Party’s voter registration advantage has ballooned from 9 to 22 points, 46-24 percent.

3. Caitlyn Jenner is not Arnold Schwarzenegger
Yes, both are celebrities, and both first made their name as athletes. But the similarities end there.

Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, world-famous for playing powerful, charismatic characters and for his distinctive, eminently impersonable Austrian accent.

He was incredibly popular among Americans and Californians in 2003. A February 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the former actor, a level of support the pollsters compared to “Michael Jordan after winning six NBA championships” or “George W. Bush just after 9/11.” An August 2003 Gallup poll reported that 79 percent of Californians had a favorable view of Schwarzenegger.

Jenner is certainly famous — according to a late 2020 YouGov survey, 93 percent of Americans know who she is. But notably, just 16 percent of Americans reported having a positive opinion of her, while 54 percent said they viewed her negatively.

Far from having a reservoir of public support to draw on, Jenner may be politically homeless. She won plaudits from liberals when she first came out as a transgender woman, but soon alienated many in the LGBTQ community with her vocal conservative politics, including her support for President Donald Trump.

She has some purchase within Republican circles — Axios reports that former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has helped her assemble a team of Republican consultants to run her race. But she occupies a precarious position: the most prominent trans woman in America at a moment when the Republican Party has decided that anti-trans legislation is common sense and the messaging is a political winner. GOP legislatures across the country have spent the first part of the year passing laws that specifically target trans women athletes. Just this week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a press release accusing Biden of “destroying women’s sports” with his “embrace of a radical policy to allow biological males to compete in women’s sports.”

Jenner has also shown little interest in electoral politics, only rarely voting over the past two decades, according to Politico.

4. Referendum vs. Choice
The danger for Newsom is that voters will see the recall primarily as a referendum on him, rather than a choice between Newsom and a less popular alternative.

So it is in Newsom’s interest for the recall field — the alternatives — to be as unpopular and unserious as possible. Cox and Faulconer don’t start with high positive statewide name recognition. Cox just lost a gubernatorial race in a landslide, and Faulconer has never run statewide. They both supported Trump in 2020. But they are serious, albeit unremarkable, politicians.

Jenner is both unpopular and unserious about politics (at least until now). Even better for Newsom, she is a tabloid mainstay whose nascent candidacy has probably made more national news than either Cox’s or Faulconer’s combined.

Previously, Newsom’s team had telegraphed a strategy of running against Trump and the Republican Party brand, rather than against Cox or Faulconer specifically. Now, they will have the additional option of running against Jenner (or more specifically, the prospect of a real-life Jenner administration).

5. Didn’t we just do this?
It was not so long ago that another member of the extended Kardashian-Jenner clan launched a highly publicized run for public office with the help of Republican operatives. 

And when the dust settled, Kanye West’s presidential campaign garnered just over 60,000 votes nationwide. There may be a lesson in that.