‘I’m in!’: Caitlyn Jenner running for California governor

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Caitlyn Jenner

FILE – In this Jan. 18, 2020, file photo Caitlyn Jenner speaks at the 4th Women’s March in Los Angeles. Jenner has been an Olympic hero, a reality TV personality and a transgender rights activist. Jenner has been consulting privately with Republican advisers as she considers joining the field of candidates seeking to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a likely recall election later this year. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Caitlyn Jenner’s decision Friday to enter the race for California governor injects a jolt of celebrity into a campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom while raising questions about whether a political newcomer can lead the nation’s most populous state as it recovers from the pandemic.

Jenner — an Olympic hero, reality TV personality and longtime Republican — announced “I’m in” on Twitter, joining a growing list of candidates seeking to oust Newsom from office.

“For the past decade, we have seen the glimmer of the Golden State reduced by one-party rule that places politics over progress and special interests over people. Sacramento needs an honest leader with a clear vision,” Jenner said in a statement announcing her “Caitlyn for California” candidacy.

Newsom, a first-term Democrat, is facing a likely recall election this year, though officials still are reviewing petition signatures required to qualify the proposal for the ballot. County election officials are required to submit their final signature tallies to the state no later than next Thursday.

The race had failed to attract a nationally recognized contender before the entrance of the 71-year-old Jenner, who won the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics and is widely known from shows “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and the spin-off “I Am Cait” that debuted after she came out as a transgender woman in 2015.

However, she is untested as a candidate and little is known about her positions on critical issues facing the state, from the coronavirus pandemic to managing the economy. She has ties to former President Donald Trump, who remains broadly unpopular in California outside his GOP base, as well as his former political operatives.

Jenner credits herself with advancing the movement for equality. But the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality California said it would oppose her candidacy, citing her ties to Trump and Republicans who have sought to undercut transgender rights around the nation.

She also has faced speculation that she’s entering politics to steer attention to her entertainment career.

Still, with her name recognition and ability to attract publicity, she could overshadow other GOP contenders, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom in the 2018 governor’s race.

Hours after Jenner announced she would run, Faulconer took a lightly veiled swipe at her lack of experience in government.

“I think I’m uniquely positioned in terms of somebody who has won elections and knows how to get results,” he told reporters.

Newsom declined to comment directly on Jenner’s candidacy during an event marking the reopening of a section of Highway 1 in Big Sur that collapsed in February. Instead, he pivoted to a rousing defense of his administration, highlighting the state’s progress on constructing roads and bridges, vaccinating Californians and building a budget surplus.

“That’s what I’m focused on,” he said.

But a fundraising appeal from his campaign sent after Jenner’s announcement warned that “we’re going to need help keeping up with Caitlyn’s personal wealth and ability to raise money from right-wing donors, now that she has Trump’s team with her.”

In a statement, Jenner called herself an outsider, “a proven winner” and the only candidate “who can put an end to Gavin Newsom’s disastrous time as governor.”

It was notable that her announcement did not include a video, which is commonplace in political campaign kickoffs. Instead, in her written statement, she referred only vaguely to cutting taxes, a “roadmap back to prosperity” and taking on special interests.

Her campaign did not respond to a request for an on-camera interview.

She described herself as “economically conservative, socially progressive” in a People magazine interview last year.

Her run would come nearly two decades after the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who used his Hollywood fame as a springboard to California’s highest office in a 2003 recall election.

If the recall qualifies as expected for the ballot this year, voters would be asked two questions. First, whether Newsom should be removed from office and second who should replace him.

If a majority says no to recalling Newsom, he stays in office and the votes for the replacements are irrelevant. But if a majority votes to remove him, then whoever among the candidates gets the most votes becomes California governor. With dozens of names expected on the ballot, it’s likely a winner would get less than 50% of the votes.

The recall effort largely has been fueled by criticism of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, which shuttered schools and closed thousands of businesses.

He’s also been hit by the fallout from a multibillion-dollar fraud scandal at the state unemployment agency while weathering a public shaming for dining out with friends and lobbyists at an exclusive San Francisco Bay Area restaurant last fall, while telling state residents to stay home for safety. Photos showed Newsom without a mask.

However, recent polling has suggested Newsom would hold his seat, and the sour public mood could shift as coronavirus restrictions recede. California also is likely to be the recipient of billions of dollars of federal recovery funds, which Newsom will dispense and could use to his political advantage.

Anne Dunsmore, a consultant for Rescue California, one of the political committees backing the recall, said she recently spoke to Jenner and views her as a serious candidate.

“I don’t think she’s going to use it to further her own purpose, but rather bring awareness to what’s happening here,” Dunsmore said.

Jenner made headlines in recent years with her ties to Trump, who lost to Joe Biden in the state 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 split with Trump after he said transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.

The team advising Jenner has included Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren, who also worked for Trump’s campaign.

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.

Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, noted that voters have embraced non-traditional candidates in the past, including Schwarzenegger. But Jenner will face long odds because of her links to Trump in the heavily Democratic state, while also lacking an established political constituency.

Still, she has “the ability to directly reach out to millions of voters” through social media, Kousser said. “It would be a mistake to view her of one of these ‘circus candidates.’”

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Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Huntington Beach and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed.

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