OAKLAND — Caitlyn Jenner launched her gubernatorial campaign a week ago with a media splash that teased the audacious promise of shaking up state politics — and delivering big trouble to California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Since then, it’s been crickets.
The reality TV star and transgender activist hasn’t made a single TV appearance. She hasn’t held a press conference or social media event. No rollout of key Republican endorsements. She doesn’t have an issues page on her website, but offers ways to “donate” and buy “Caitlyn for California” merchandise.
“If she doesn’t come out and say something within the next several days, I think everyone moves on and says this is just some type of crank candidacy,” said veteran GOP consultant Rob Stutzman, who was a principal adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during his successful 2003 recall bid.
Jenner is “an outsider now auditioning to run the largest state government in the country,” Stutzman added. “You’ve got to give a speech, sit for interviews — and convince people that you can do it.”
So far, Jenner has focused most of her efforts nationally rather than in California. She launched her bid while most California residents were still asleep, first confirming her run with Axios rather than a local media outlet. Fox News announced Thursday that Jenner will sit down with Sean Hannity for an interview that will air May 5 — nearly two weeks after she declared “I’m in” on the recall election.
The news made an initial splash beyond the state, yet was greeted with more of a shrug in California, especially among the political establishment. Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Z. Barabak, a veteran chronicler of California campaigns, mused that her entry “appears to be a half-baked confection of the exiled Trump political operation” and suggested that Jenner was getting “inordinate attention” because she plays into the view that “East Coast sophisticates” have of the state.
Jennifer Kerns, a former California Republican Party spokesperson and now a national radio talk show host with All-American Radio, said it’s mystifying that Jenner — a 1976 Olympic gold medalist introduced to a new generation of Americans on the reality TV hit “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” — isn’t staying relevant every day in the age of social media after entering the race.
“When you’re launching a campaign, you need to be feeding the media and feeding the public … you have a 24/7 news media cycle that you have to feed every single day,” Kerns said. “And that is going to be a huge challenge … all of the recall candidates have to hold people’s attention spans, now through October … and remember that content is king.”
Case in point: Jenner was nearly forgotten Tuesday when “National Lampoon” actor Randy Quaid said he was “seriously considering” his own run for governor. Quaid, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, was trending by the end of the day on Twitter.
Jenner’s campaign for now has the feel of an “Under Construction” sign. Her staff dubbed last week’s entrance as a soft launch and would not answer questions on the record this week. A source familiar with the Jenner campaign said she’s holding private discussions and meeting with key Republicans at the state and grassroots level and said to “stay tuned” next week.
On social media, one of Jenner’s attempts to join California’s fray revealed how difficult it is for a political neophyte to tackle state issues. Over the weekend, she slammed what she called “Gavin’s DAs” as the source of crime problems, a charge that drew immediate pushback from Democrats and political insiders because district attorneys are elected locally, not appointed by the governor. (Newsom also did not endorse San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, the reformist in question; Newsom instead backed opponent Suzy Loftus in 2019.)
Meanwhile, Jenner’s entrance into the race has given Newsom a new fundraising pitch, and his campaign said he collected $300,000 in the first 36 hours after her announcement. Newsom has played heavily on Jenner’s reliance on Trump advisers, including Brad Parscale, who was for a time Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.
Jenner took it in stride Tuesday, saying on Twitter, “You’re welcome, Gavin! I am glad I am such a fundraising asset to your team,” adding a laughing emoji.
Kerns, a vocal conservative, said Jenner’s closed-door meetings with Republican groups aren’t putting her in front of the broader and more skeptical public she needs to convince. She speculates that Jenner’s campaign is “in a little bit of chaos” in the wake of reaction to her rollout — and to a POLITICO report that she has a spotty voting record.
But “Republicans have to get rid of this notion that you have to be this perfect candidate” because voters will forgive gaffes and voting records if they hear substantive messages from them, she said.
In 2003, Schwarzenegger waited until August to announce on “The Tonight Show” that he would run for governor in the state’s October recall election that year. Not only did his announcement involve a full interview with talk show host Jay Leno, but Schwarzenegger made the rounds right afterward. Two days later, he talked about California’s budget deficit, infrastructure problems and education issues on CBS’ “The Early Show.”
The “Terminator” movie star had successfully led an initiative campaign the year before to fund after-school programs in California. He also benefited from being married to Maria Shriver at the time, a media savvy TV journalist and member of the Kennedy family. Schwarzenegger not only relied on advice from his Kennedy relatives but a team of Sacramento advisers with experience running California campaigns and decades of experience in and around the state Capitol.
If Jenner is going to follow Schwarzenegger’s path, she needs to take advantage of every opportunity to connect with average voters — and address issues that could resonate, Kerns said.
“You could talk to every small business owner and create coalitions of restaurant owners that were harmed by Gavin’s policies,” she said. On Fox News and other media, “she should be out there doing a lot of shows twice a week, talking about the issues, talking about the pain and suffering that Gavin Newsom has placed upon people.”
Besides fame, Jenner does start with personal wealth and has a vast social media audience — 3.5 million followers on Twitter and nearly 11 million on Instagram. She could leverage those accounts the same way Trump and other politicians have in recent years, though it’s unclear how many of those followers are California voters or potential donors.
But Newsom is quickly shoring up his defense — and benefiting from some strong political tailwinds at the moment. California has the lowest coronavirus infection rate in the nation and the Covid-19 vaccine is available to anyone 16 and older. Nearly every activity has resumed in some form, though some — like schools — remain largely scaled back from normal capacity. Families and friends have begun to socialize after being fully vaccinated.
Already, a new PPIC poll this week suggests the strongest evidence yet that Newsom is amassing the popular support to beat back a recall, finding 59 percent of likely voters approve of how Newsom has managed school reopening, and an equal share approves of how he has handled jobs and the economy.
That has left more experienced GOP candidates — former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, businessman John Cox and former House Rep. Doug Ose — looking for ways to capture voters’ attention. They remain active on social media, and Faulconer is making regular appearances on national and local television shows. He won’t comment directly on Jenner but has made himself available and said he’s scheduling almost daily events to make his case.
“Look I think, I think there’s a reason why two million Californians signed this recall petition. There’s a real sense of urgency to get our state back on the right track,’’ he said. “I think you’re seeing a continued rise in anger and frustration from parents all across the state that are angry because our public schools have still not fully reopened.”
But Stutzman says all Republicans — including Jenner — better step up their game, and fast.
“Since she’s announced, the other three Republicans have all apparently fallen off the face of the earth,” Stutzman said. “Obviously Gavin — predictably — is getting some uptick … and he’s had a pretty good two months in which he switched it up and gotten on the road,” more effectively using the governor’s office as a showcase to underscore those positive outcomes.
“If Republicans are serious, they have got to get aggressive and get much sharper elbows about Newsom’’ — or face the possibility of becoming footnotes, he said. “If it were me, I would be running my own TV show on social media every day.”