At a time when transgender rights have become the new culture war in American politics, former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner announced a historic campaign Friday to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election.
“As Californians, we face a now-or-never opportunity to fundamentally fix our state before it’s too late,” the 71-year-old Jenner, a Republican, wrote on Twitter. “Taking on entrenched Sacramento politicians and the special interests that fund them requires a fighter who isn’t afraid to do what is right. I am a proven winner and the only outsider who can put an end to Gavin Newsom’s disastrous time as governor.”
The move comes as vocal segments of her party are pushing dozens of bills to curtail rights for transgender people across the nation.
The effort to recall Newsom is expected to qualify for the ballot soon, with an election in the fall. Other Republicans who are running include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox.
Though transgender politicians have been elected to office in recent years — notably Democrats Sarah McBride, a Delaware state senator, in 2020, and Danica Roem, a Virginia lawmaker, in 2017 — Jenner is the most prominent to try, as she seeks one of the most powerful offices in the country.
Her run is juxtaposed with dozens of efforts across the nation aimed at denying transgender rights, including barring transgender students from playing on girls sports teams and classifying hormone therapy as child abuse. These efforts are being advocated by former President Trump and Republican lawmakers across the country as part of a strategy some predict will help the GOP during next year’s midterm election.
“This is the largest, most widespread onslaught against trans rights and certainly specifically trans children, that we have ever seen,” said Charlotte Clymer, an LGBTQ activist who is critical of Jenner. “Given Caitlyn Jenner’s interest in running for governor of California, you’d expect her to speak out on these things. But she hasn’t really been out there.”
It’s a familiar quandary for Jenner, who has said she has received more flak for being a Republican than for announcing that she identified as a trans woman in 2015. She describes herself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and publicly supported Trump in 2016. (A recent Politico story found that she did not vote in that presidential election, nor in about two-thirds of others she was eligible to cast a ballot in since 2000, including the 2003 recall.)
In 2018, after the president pushed anti-trans policies, Jenner said she made a mistake in backing him.
As Jenner builds a campaign staff, she is reportedly surrounded by some Trump loyalists, including a fundraiser associated with the rally that preceded the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Jenner was spotted dining Thursday night at Tuscany il Ristorante in Westlake Village with former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, along with former state GOP chairman Frank Visco, actor John O’Hurley, businessman Zack Schuler and others.
Newsom allies have sought to tie the recall effort to Trump and the insurrection, a strategy driven by Trump’s unpopularity in California. Though Trump lost the state by more than 29 percentage points, he won the support of more than 6 million Californians — voters who will be key if the effort to recall Newsom is successful. Every prominent Republican running to replace the sitting governor supported the former president to varying degrees.
“We always knew the Republican recall would be a ludicrous circus full of Trump supporters, which only reinforces how much Californians appreciate Gov. Newsom’s competent, compassionate, experienced leadership during an unprecedented series of crises,” said Dan Newman, a Newsom advisor.
Voters will be asked two questions in the election: Do they want to recall Newsom, and if he is recalled, who do they want to replace him with? No prominent Democrats have announced plans to run, and Newsom is prohibited from being a candidate on the replacement ballot.
Jenner previously toyed with challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018. But this is the first time she has officially announced a run for office. In her announcement, Jenner slammed Newsom’s pandemic closure policies, saying they have harmed schoolchildren and small business owners.
“This isn’t the California we know. This is Gavin Newsom’s California, where he orders us to stay home but goes out to dinner with his lobbyist friends,” Jenner wrote, referring to an infamous birthday dinner Newsom attended at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant.
Jenner’s campaign invites inevitable comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former body-building champion turned movie star, businessman and reality television host who was elected governor during the 2003 recall. That assessment ignores the differences between the two, who have been friends since the height of their athletic stardom in the 1970s. Schwarzenegger had been vocally involved in California politics, notably education issues, before he ran for governor. Jenner has not.
Don Sipple, a political consultant who produced advertising for Schwarzenegger’s 2003 campaign, burst out laughing at the prospect of Jenner’s candidacy.
“What credentials are there?” he said. “What’s the groundwork that’s been laid in the public policy arena to suggest she would be a plausible candidate or a plausible governor?”
Jenner was born in 1949 in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and attended school in New York and Connecticut before going to college in Iowa. Jenner became a renowned decathlete and later moved to California, breaking records around the world and winning the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics.
Jenner’s triumphs turned the athlete into a celebrity; the star was pictured on the Wheaties cereal box, appeared on television shows and in movies, and posed for the cover of Playgirl magazine. In 1991, Jenner married Kris Kardashian. The couple had two children, while Kris had four children from her prior marriage to prominent attorney Robert Kardashian. The blended family has been part of the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” reality television show on E! since 2007, reviving Jenner’s celebrity.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.