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On April 22, Caitlyn Jenner announced that she had filed paperwork to register herself as a candidate for Governor of California in a recall election against the sitting governor, Gavin Newsom. The organizers will likely meet the threshold of verified signatures, and the election is likely to be scheduled for early fall.
Even before Trump, it wasn’t a surprise to see candidates on the ballot with minor qualifications but lots of personal wealth and celebrity. The other thing we learned in 2016 is that no one should ever imagine that voters can’t be enthusiastic about someone totally unsuited for public service.
Yet early media reports can find little to say about someone who is too internet famous to ignore. Good Morning America declared Jenner to be “the most prominent Republican on the ballot anywhere in the country this year, and the most high-profile transwoman ever to run for political office.” ABC News acknowledged that Newsome was unlikely to lose a recall election to anyone but a prominent Democrat, but reporter Zohreen Shah nevertheless enthused about Jenner’s celebrity. She also cheerfully noted that movie stars do well in California. Ronald Reagan went straight from the TV studio to the Governor’s office in 1966 and then to the White House in 1980. Arnold Schwarzenegger had no political experience before he defeated Davis in 2003.
Like her predecessors, Jenner’s career has been in entertainment. As Bruce Jenner, the name and gender she was assigned at birth, Caitlyn was an international decathlete. It’s a grueling, obscure sport that requires immense dedication and matters to almost no one except in an Olympic year. But Jenner was remarkably good at it. After a tenth-place finish in the 1972 Olympics, she dedicated herself to training for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Speeding past Soviet runner Leonid Litvinenko at the last minute in the last event, Jenner won the gold medal, an electrifying moment that would make any athlete a national figure.
But after that—what? No one competes in decathlons in real life, and although a basketball team drafted her, there is no other obvious career for a decathlete except coaching. Instead, Jenner capitalized on that brief moment of fame by doing the things celebrities with no real marketable skill do: product endorsements, licensing their images, modeling, stunts, game shows, and acting jobs in B-movies that do not lead to acting careers.
At the same time, the secret—one that may have contributed to the collapse of Jenner’s two marriages—was that this person marketed as a sexy, masculine ideal—was gender dysphoric.
In 1991, having dabbled with hormone therapy, Jenner married again. Her third wife was Hollywood celebrity Kris Kardashian, whose sole claim to fame was her own marriage to Los Angeles attorney Robert Kardashian. But that would change with the shift of broadcast television to reality shows like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice (2004). In 2007, Kris launched a series about her family, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, where Jenner became part of the most successful reality TV franchises in history. In 2015, it also became a stage for her to publicly come out as trans, something she and Kris had acknowledged but tried to contain when they married.
In February 2016, almost a year into her transition and her own reality series, I Am Cait, Jenner told a wall-to-wall crowd at the University of Pennsylvania that her politics were as complex as her gender journey. “I have gotten more flak for being a conservative Republican,” she said, “than I have for being trans.” She described herself as economically conservative and socially liberal: according to a 2020 Gallup poll, this would make her similar to many independents and about 47% of Democrats.
Perhaps this is why Jenner, now 71, thinks that being Governor of California is a possible career path. This may also be the place to mention that the Newsome recall was initially tepid and a response to the Covid-19 lockdowns and mask mandates in California. But it gathered momentum in the tumultuous days after the 2020 election. As recounts were proceeding in multiple states, reports emerged that Newsom had secretly eaten dinner with political lobbyists at a fancy restaurant while on his orders, the rest of the state was miserably confined to their homes.
Other experienced Republicans are said to be preparing to file their candidacies. But until Jenner threw her cloche into the ring, there was no real opposition. As one headline put it, only “a mayor, a pastor and an adult film star”—a group you might expect to find on any California street corner—had offered themselves up.
One imagines Caitlin thinking: why not me? So many famous people run for office nowadays who have no experience governing anything: Donald Trump, Cynthia Nixon, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson are only the most recent examples.
Yet, unlike these other figures, Jenner isn’t exactly a political blank slate either. It seems unlikely—given the shallow and sometimes contrarian quality of her trans activism and her proud identification as a Republican—that she will swing LGBTQ votes away from Newsome. Nor does it seem likely that, as a transwoman, she will mobilize GOP voters who have been activated nationwide for several years by anti-trans legislation. Jenner withdrew her support for Donald Trump in 2018 because he attacked trans rights. Nevertheless, she argues that certain kinds of discrimination are reasonable: announcing, as a former elite athlete, that she too supports the exclusion of transgender women and girls from women’s athletic competition. This is something that no one is calling for in California, and a legislature with veto-proof Democratic supermajorities will never pass.
But recalls, even when they lose, re-energize conservative activism, something that the California GOP badly needs.
American recall votes are older than the United States itself. An aspect of colonial governance, the recall was arguably one of the political principles that permitted English creole elites in North America to imagine that they could oust a king. But, after considerable debate, they were never written into the United States Constitution: thus, the power to recall exists in only twenty states.
The recall was re-introduced in the Progressive era to fight corrupt political machines, allowing voters to reclaim their authority by removing corrupt or incompetent elected officials. From 1911 to 1995, almost a century, there were 21 recall elections, 16 of which (76%) were successful.
But after that, recalls ballooned and were far more typical of so-called “swing states” in the Midwest than California. From 1996 to 2008, there were 62 recalls, 41 of which (66%) were successful. Over half of them occurred in the wave of conservative and libertarian organizing during and after the 2008 campaign. An astonishing fourteen recall efforts (22%), ten of which failed, occurred in Wisconsin alone, a state that was a hotbed of Tea Party organizing between 2010 and 2011. And in 2011 alone, an off-year for national elections, there were a record 150 recalls nationwide., with Michigan leading the pack at 30.
So perhaps the Jenner candidacy is less a sign of her own personal narcissism and ability to self-finance and more a way to make Newsom spend time and campaign funds to hold onto an office he was legitimately elected to hold. Indeed, as an article by journalist Alan Greenblatt posted at Emily’s List argues, recalls are now a partisan tactic for undoing elections and creating government disfunction. Not infrequently, state legislators resign rather than mount a campaign to hold onto their seats that they cannot afford.
In other words, the recall is part of a Republican repertoire of tactics, one less sensational than the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, that the GOP will use to undermine democratic elections that they cannot win legitimately. It’s unlikely that Caitlyn Jenner will dash past Gavin Newsom this fall, as she did Leonid Litvinenko in the summer of 1976.
But she could splinter the vote and send a far less incoherent conservative to Sacramento.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).