Transgender activist and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner and her political advisers are gathering at her Malibu home next week to discuss her potential candidacy in the upcoming California gubernatorial recall election.
The meeting comes as Jenner, a 71-year-old Olympic gold-medal decathlete and Republican activist who for years appeared on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” explores whether to enter the race. After batting down rumors earlier this year that she was open to running, Jenner has been taking more concrete steps to prepare for a potential campaign than have been previously reported.
Jenner has brought aboard a team of seasoned GOP strategists. The team includes Ryan Erwin, a former top official at the California Republican Party who had roles on Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush’s presidential campaigns, who is serving as a general consultant. According to two people familiar with the hires, she has also tapped Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican national committeewoman and San Francisco-based attorney, to be general counsel.
Jenner has also been working with Caroline Wren, a longtime Republican fundraiser, and Brad Parscale, a former campaign manager to ex-President Donald Trump.
The four are expected to attend next week’s meeting with Jenner and her manager, Sophia Hutchins. Jenner has also been conferring with other Republicans about the race, including Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
Recall organizers say they have submitted a sufficient number of signatures to force an election later this year to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose approval ratings have dipped amid widespread criticism over his handling of the coronavirus and the state’s battered economy. The ballot would consist of two questions: whether to remove Newsom from office, and who should be the new governor. A poll released last week showed support for removing Newsom is well short of a majority, however.
Word of Jenner’s potential candidacy has divided top California Republicans — with some dismissing it as a celebrity-driven stunt, and others arguing that she would be a strong candidate who could appeal to voters of both parties.
Former Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) contended that Jenner would be a force given her high profile. In a short race that will transpire over only a few months, Walters argued, familiarity matters.
“If Caitlyn Jenner decides to run for California governor in the recall election, I think she would be a very formidable candidate,” said Walters.
But Mike Murphy, a longtime California-based Republican strategist pointed out that the 2003 California recall election drew other celebrity candidates who fizzled. The roster included everyone from the late actor Gary Coleman to porn star Mary Carey and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.
“I learned from the rather amazing and Robert Altman-esque candidate list from the last recall election in 2003 not to take too much of the pre noise very seriously. I think it would most likely be a stunt candidacy, but we’ll see,” said Murphy, who advised bodybuilder and Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful campaign that year.
Jenner denied interest in the race earlier this year, with Hutchins saying in a statement that “Caitlyn is not running for governor, has never considered running for governor and is very happy doing the work that she is doing to promote LGBT rights and spending time with her 18 grandchildren and 10 children.
Axios first reported earlier in the week that Jenner was considering entering the race.
Several Republicans have already entered the contest, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox, who waged an unsuccessful 2018 campaign against Newsom. The race is expected to draw dozens of candidates from all parties, if not upwards of 100. More than 130 contenders competed in the 2003 recall, which resulted in the removal of Democrat Gray Davis.
Unseating Newsom will not be easy. California has become an increasingly liberal state, and President Joe Biden received more than 63 percent of the vote there in the election. Newsom, a former lieutenant governor and San Francisco mayor, has also established a massive fundraising base and entered this year with more than $20 million on hand.
National Republicans, however, are preparing to invest in the race. The RGA has launched an organization, Recall Newsom! RGA Action, which will be allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash.
Jenner’s connections could be a financial boon to her campaign, some Republicans argue.
“Anyone who starts with significant name identification and financial resources can be viable in a race where there may be 200-plus candidates,” said former California state GOP chairman Jim Brulte, a past Republican state legislative leader.
Jenner, who has emerged as a vocal defender of transgender rights after coming out in 2015, has weighted running for elected office before. Ahead of the 2018 election, she said she was considering challenging Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, though she ultimately opted against it. Jenner supported Trump in the 2016 election, but she later openly criticized his policies toward the transgender community.
Jenner’s extended family has taken an increasingly high-profile role in politics in recent years. Kim Kardashian, who had been Jenner’s stepdaughter when Jenner was married to Kris Kardashian, worked closely with the Trump White House on issues related to criminal justice reform.
“She has a name and a following,” Dave Gilliard, a veteran California-based GOP strategist said of Jenner, “so she should be taken seriously.”
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