OAKLAND — Caitlyn Jenner is not Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The reality TV star’s entry Friday into the California governor’s race is raising the specter of a celebrity-fueled, chaotic and crowded recall election as Republicans ramp up their effort to unseat Democrat Gavin Newsom.
But 2021 isn’t 2003 — the landmark year when Schwarzenegger, who was then best-known for starring in the “Terminator” movie series, wowed the political universe with an announcement of his recall bid on the “Tonight Show,” then became the leader of the world’s fifth-largest economy two months later.
Here are five reasons why Jenner, the 71-year-old former Olympic gold medalist, may have a different — and much more difficult — road ahead as she throws her hat into what could become a crowded ring:
1. California is much more Democratic: The state has trended evermore blue since 2003. Every statewide elected official is now a Democrat, along with more than two-thirds of the Legislature and the vast majority of the congressional delegation. That has supplied a deep pool of endorsements for Newsom as the party unifies behind him.
Democrats also account for 46 percent of the registered electorate versus just 24 percent for Republicans — a difference of nearly five million voters. That gap has widened significantly since Schwarzenegger was on the last recall ballot: back then, Democrats had a much smaller advantage of about 8 points, or about 1.3 million voters. All of that buoys Newsom.
2. Poll position: Recent polling shows clear majorities of voters approve of Newsom’s performance and don’t want to oust him — a position he owes to solid support among independents and the overwhelming backing of his own party. Newsom was elected in 2018 in a resounding victory over Republican businessperson John Cox — the largest landslide for a non-incumbent since 1930, and one that saw Newsom win even formerly conservative strongholds like Orange County.
Gov. Gray Davis, in the wake of a nasty 2002 reelection campaign against Republican Bill Simon, entered office with shaky approval ratings, and was flailing in the polls and losing the confidence of Democrats on the eve of getting recalled. By September, nearly two-thirds of likely voters favored recalling Davis; by contrast, just 40 percent said recently they would oust Newsom. That could change in the months between now and a likely fall recall election, but time looks to be on Newsom’s side. The governor is poised to benefit from an improving coronavirus situation, particularly if he hits his target of a broad June 15 reopening.
3. Arnold appeal: Jenner may be known to fans of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and as a 1976 Olympic gold medalist decathlete, but her role in California politics is a blank slate. She has had little involvement in the Republican Party or ballot measures, and she has reported no major political contributions, based on state and federal campaign records. It’s unclear how far her name ID extends in an ever-divergent media landscape and a state where not everyone has been obsessed with her TV-raised clan from Calabasas.
That’s a far cry from Schwarzenegger, who entered the 2003 recall with not only one of the most universally recognizable names in show business but with a long-running resume of political activity. Adding to his credibility: he was married to Maria Shriver, a nationally known journalist, as well as a member of American political royalty, the Kennedys.
As one of the world’s most popular entertainment figures in 2003, Schwarzenegger rode on his fame as the world’s biggest box office action hero and as a former seven-time Mr. Olympia, an icon who had revolutionized the world of bodybuilding.
He skillfully used both those platforms for political experience and activism, serving as the chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness for George H.W. Bush, and then as chair for the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under Gov. Pete Wilson. He also took up the stewardship of the Special Olympics promoted by his mother-in-law Eunice Shriver and became a leading proponent of after-school programs. He successfully pushed for the passage of Prop. 49 in 2002, which earmarked funds for after-school activities — and laid the groundwork for his career in state politics.
4. Social media impact: Remember the days before social media? No? Neither do millions of Californians born in the ’90s and beyond. And none of today’s powerhouse platforms — Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube or Instagram — existed when Schwarzenegger made appeals to California voters as a recall candidate in 2003.
But those are exactly the same platforms that have helped propel the Kardashian clan, including Jenner, to recent fame — giving rise to their careers and providing exposure to millions of Americans on reality TV.
GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said social media may be now a major factor and a benefit for Jenner as she pursues California’s top job. She has 3.5 million followers on Twitter and nearly 11 million on Instagram. That gives her a platform to amplify her attacks on Newsom — turning them into fodder on cable TV and Saturday Night Live. In other words, she could turn the recall into a pop culture moment, especially if a parade of other social media celebrities decide to join her and jump into the ring.
5. Shadow of Trump: The 2003 recall occurred in the BT era — Before Trump. Schwarzenegger, in his run for office, didn’t have to contend with the effects or aftermath of a historically unpopular GOP president in office. He became governor in the recall during the administration of George W. Bush, who was coming off of some of his highest approval ratings in the aftermath of 9/11. Bush had 51 percent approval from all adults in the state in September 2003, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.
Jenner, however, not only embraced Trump, but voted for him — a candidate who left office with his disapproval ratings at historic levels in California. Now, she has hired several top insiders from Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, including campaign manager Brad Parscale and White House and Trump campaign communications insider Steve Cheung.
That move gives Newsom’s team a chance to do what Democrats and Gray Davis could never do — credibly argue that her entry is an extension of a wildly unpopular Republican in California.
And even as a historic transgender candidate, Jenner will be forced to explain her association with an increasingly conservative GOP that has pushed dozens of legislative efforts in states like Arkansas to roll back rights and health care for transgender men and women — and especially transgender youth.
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