By Jordan Nugent – Regular Contributor
“Wealthy reality TV star declares their candidacy”- sound familiar? It probably does; Caitlyn Jenner’s run as a Republican in the California Gubernatorial Recall Special Election later this year (to become the Governor of the State), comes just months after arguably the most high-profile and contentious wealthy ex-media star left office: Donald Trump.
Some in the Republican party, like former National Security Advisor John Bolton, see Trump as an ‘anomaly’ that has been and gone- while some sensible actors like the Journalist Michael Goldfarb see Trump as ‘the product of a series of forces in US politics and culture’. Categorically, Trump wasn’t an anomaly. The rise of multi-millionaires and billionaires entering politics, seeking high public office is well-documented- and highly concerning. Even when the ultra-rich don’t run for public office they often manipulate elections by ploughing money into political campaigns for candidates that will reflect their best, dodgy interests in Congress. As Bernie Sanders put it: “It is not just that the one tenth of 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90%. They don’t put their wealth underneath their mattresses, right. They use that wealth to perpetrate, perpetuate their power. And they do that politically”. He rightly points out that ‘concentrated wealth is concentrated power’- and we should all be justifiably concerned.
Hence, Caitlyn Jenner’s run for California Governor is unsurprising. The American media personality, socialite and retired Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete has a net worth of $100 million and is very much a member of the American celebrity elite. She is aiming to seek the Republican nomination to try and unseat the under-fire California Governor Gavin Newsom in November. Newsom is facing this recall election because sufficient signatures were gathered to trigger one- as in California state law just 12% of people who voted in the last election are required to sign a petition saying they want one.
Newsom has been scrutinised for his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic in California, particularly since November when California entered its most precarious and deadly stage of the pandemic. Conservative activists railed against Newsom’s strict lockdown measures, and staged several anti-mask rallies. Moreover, numerous Democratic allies of Newson in the California State Legislature became increasingly concerned that he wasn’t acting fast enough to prevent the soaring number of infections and deaths. Newsom also essentially shot himself in the foot when he got caught attending a dinner party at the Michelin-starred French Laundry Restaurant in Napa with his bigwig lobbyist chums, parading wealth and avarice while flouting his own mask requirements as the Covid-19 death count was rising. Moreover, the state employment development department was swindled into paying billions in fraudulent unemployment claims while millions of jobless Californians struggled for aid- all of this was under the Governor’s watch.
Therefore, you can see why Newsom has been under-fire and why Jenner is hopeful in unseating him this November. Yet, California is now a solidly liberal state that has overwhelmingly rejected ‘Trumpism’ twice in 4 years as Trump lost there by over 30 points in 2016 and 2020. Moreover, California is largely controlled by a fierce, impervious Democratic elite (much like New York), and GOP opposition there in recent times has been feeble to say the least. The last Republican to inhabit the Governor’s Mansion was of course the Austrian-American film star Arnold Schwarzenegger, from 2003-2011.
Jenner has tried to position herself as a ‘compassionate disruptor’, who will shake the complacency out of the California Democratic elite, as Schwarzenegger similarly pledged to do in 2003. She has consistently aimed to label herself as ‘socially liberal’ and ‘fiscally conservative’, much in the way Schwarzenegger successfully did, in a bid to appeal to the vast liberal, wealthy middle-class that populate the state. It must be acknowledged that Jenner’s transition from male to female has helped to bring trans people visibility in public life. Yet, her ‘socially liberal’ label simply does not stand up to scrutiny.
Jenner is first and foremost, a Conservative Republican. She supported Trump in his election as President, up until 2018 when she said she could no longer support him given his administration’s divisive LGBTQ policies, especially for transgender people. This is despite her spending years telling the LGBTQ community to put their faith in him. Trump became perhaps the most actively anti-trans president in American history, rolling back non-discrimination protections in health care, banning trans people from the military, trying to exclude trans people from equal education rights, giving homeless shelters and prisons the right to force trans people to be housed according to their assigned sex at birth. There are countless examples to cite- yet it took Jenner until midway through the Trump administration’s term in office to denounce him.
Jenner is also a lifelong Republican- a party that has been systematically attacking the trans community in states across the country. Republican-led state legislatures are continually banning trans adolescents from accessing lifesaving transition care and trans girls from girls sports; so far this legislative session, eight states have passed anti-trans bills and more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced, according to the Human Rights Campaign. She unsurprisingly has key ties to the GOP establishment (in fact many of them pushed her to enter the race), in particular she leaned upon Trump’s profligate former campaign manager Brad Parscale, in weighing up her bid for Governor, and her campaign team include Trump’s former top pollster as well as a former White House communications advisor for the Trump administration. She regularly appears on Fox News and has done several interviews with the Conservative hawk Sean Hannity.
Moreover, she recently advocated a personal stance opposing transgender girls competing in girls’ sports at school due to a ‘question of fairness’. She said: “That’s why I oppose biological boys who are trans competing in girls’ sports in school. It just isn’t fair. And we have to protect girls’ sports in our schools”. Many transgender rights advocates say Jenner has once again failed to convince them that she is a major asset to their cause, that her views do not represent the community, and that she will happily step on other trans people in her pursuit of power.
Also, remember her ‘compassionate disruptor’ label from earlier? Well her recent comments on the homeless in California demonstrate her complete lack of compassion. When speaking to Sean Hannity on Fox News in her own airplane hangar in Malibu, she smugly, insensitively bemoaned that her rich friends are fleeing California in their droves because they can’t walk down the street and continue to look at the homeless anymore. Much like Trump, she is a wealthy aristocrat who is completely detached from reality.
Thankfully, Californians can see that as she looks increasingly unlikely to succeed as Schwarzenegger did in the state. A recent poll conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute with the L.A. Times, found that just 6% of Californians would vote for her to replace Newsom- and a vast majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents said they would not be inclined to support her candidacy. This puts her well behind other Republican contenders such as former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and businessman and perennial GOP candidate John Cox- who coincidentally was crushed like a bug by Gavin Newsom in the 2018 Gubernatorial election. Schwarzenegger, by contrast, was the clear frontrunner from the moment he stepped into the 2003 recall, and used appearances on Oprah for example to deploy the considerable communication skills he’d built up over decades of celebrity interviews. Jenner, on the other hand, 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.
She is not nearly as media-savvy, or indeed as personally popular as Schwarzenegger, in the state- and she didn’t help her cause when she told Dana Bash on CNN recently that she stayed at home in the 2020 election in favour of playing Golf, as she hadn’t found anything to get excited about in the election. Many rightly questioned 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. Despite this, Politico’s research actually found that she had voted last November after all. Jenner was apparently unaware that who votes and who does not is a matter of public record in California, consequently a former Republican campaign operative, Jack Pitney, told Politico: “This is not someone who is serious about public life.”
Her prospects look even bleaker, as the threat of the recall has spurred Gov. Newsom into reopening the economy and the state’s public schools much faster. With the pandemic receding and 36% of Californians being fully vaccinated, his approval ratings are back above 50%, and almost every poll predicts he will survive the recall challenge.
Someone of Schwarzenegger’s charisma could close that gap between now and election day, but Jenner appears to have just a small political base. Only 13% of Republicans back her, and she has little crossover appeal to Democrats. Her poor initial showing is also likely to culminate in problems with fundraising and courting the endorsement of Republican leaders inside and outside California. Unfortunately for Jenner, her struggles are about the timing of her celebrity candidacy as much as her campaign itself. California voters ended up deeply disenchanted with Schwarzenegger’s governorship, despite him remaining personally popular, and Californians have demonstrated in every election since 2016 that they found Trump’s own celebrity ‘disruptor’ campaigns hollow and repugnant.
While nothing is impossible in American politics (Trump taught us that), it increasingly appears Jenner is not the person to lead the GOP to success in the Golden State. Her only hope to win the Republican nomination would be if the field were divided and she could win with minority support, yet this wouldn’t necessarily help her state-wide against Newsom. Ultimately, without the communication skills of a Schwarzenegger, her ‘socially liberal’, ‘compassionate disruptor’ mask is exposed and her boomer Conservative core is revealed. In arguably America’s most liberal state at present, her campaign is surely dead-on-arrival.