LOS ANGELES (AP) — Republican Caitlyn Jenner said Friday she will run for governor of California, injecting a jolt of celebrity into an emerging campaign that threatens to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office.
Jenner — an Olympic hero, reality TV personality and transgender rights activist — said in statement posted on Twitter and on an accompanying website that she has filed initial paperwork to run for the post.
Newsom, a first-term Democrat, is facing a likely recall election this year, though officials are still reviewing petition signatures required to qualify the proposal for the ballot. Several other Republicans also have announced plans to run.
The race had failed to attract a nationally recognized contender before the entrance of 71-year-old Jenner, who is widely known from shows “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and the spin-off “I Am Cait.”
However, she brings an abundance of questions about her ability to potentially lead the nation’s most populous state at a time of crisis and has faced speculation that she's entering politics to steer attention to her entertainment career.
She is untested as a candidate and little is known about her positions on critical issues facing the state, from the coronavirus pandemic to managing the economy. She has ties to former President Donald Trump, who remains broadly unpopular in California outside his GOP base, as well as his former political operatives.
Jenner credits herself with advancing the movement for equality, but the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality California said it would oppose her candidacy, citing her ties to Trump and Republicans who have sought to undercut transgender rights.
Still, with her name recognition and ability to attract publicity, she could overshadow other GOP contenders, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose and businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 governor’s race.
Hours after Jenner announced she would run, Faulconer took a lightly veiled swipe at her lack of experience in government.
“I think I’m uniquely positioned in terms of somebody who has won elections and knows how to get results," he told reporters.
In a statement, Jenner called herself an outsider and “a proven winner” and the only candidate “who can put an end to Gavin Newsom's disastrous time as governor.”
“I'm in,” she wrote on her website. “For the past decade, we have seen the glimmer of the Golden State reduced by one-party rule that places politics over progress and special interests over people. Sacramento needs an honest leader with a clear vision.”
It was notable that her announcement did not include a video, which is commonplace in political campaign kickoffs. Instead, in her written statement, she referred only vaguely to cutting taxes, a “roadmap back to prosperity” and taking on special interests.
Her campaign did not respond to a request for an on-camera interview.
She described herself as “economically conservative, socially progressive” in a People magazine interview last year.
Her run would come nearly two decades after the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Republican who used his Hollywood fame as a springboard to California's highest office in a 2003 recall election.
County election officials are required to submit their final signature tallies to the state no later than next Thursday.
If the recall qualifies for the ballot, as expected, voters would be asked two questions: first, whether Newsom should be removed from office. The second would be a list of replacement candidates to choose from, if more than 50% of voters support removing Newsom from office.
The effort largely has been fueled by criticism of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic, which shuttered schools and closed thousands of businesses.
If the recall qualifies, Newsom would be forced to fend off rivals in the midst of a pandemic that has cost the state millions of jobs, cored government budgets and upended life for nearly 40 million residents.
He’s also been hit by the fallout from a multibillion-dollar fraud scandal at the state unemployment agency while weathering a public shaming for dining out with friends and lobbyists at an exclusive San Francisco Bay Area restaurant last fall, while telling residents to stay home for safety.
However, recent polling has suggested Newsom would hold his seat, and the sour public mood could shift as more schools and businesses reopen. California also is likely to be the recipient of billions of dollars of federal recovery funds, which Newsom will dispense and could use to his political advantage.
In a typical California gubernatorial election, Jenner, as a Republican, would face long odds in the state dominated by Democrats.
But with dozens of candidates expected to join the ballot in a likely recall election, the threshold to win would be far lower with the vote divided among many contenders. Some analysts have projected that a winning candidate might need as little as 20% of the vote to top a large field.
Anne Dunsmore, a consultant for Rescue California, one of the political committees backing the recall, said she recently spoke to Jenner and views her as a serious candidate.
“I don’t think she’s going to use it to further her own purpose, but rather bring awareness to what’s happening here,” Dunsmore said.
Jenner made headlines in recent years with her ties to Trump, who lost to Joe Biden in the state in November by over 5 million votes.
Jenner supported Trump in 2016 but later criticized his administration’s reversal of a directive on transgender access to public school bathrooms. She also criticized Trump after he said transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.
In a statement, Newsom campaign spokesman Dan Newman said, “We always knew the ... recall would be a ludicrous circus full of Trump supporters.”
The team advising Jenner has included Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren, who worked for Trump's campaign.
Jenner, who won the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics, also could face questions about a 2015 fatal crash in which she rear-ended two cars. A 69-year-old woman was killed when her car was pushed into the path of an oncoming Hummer.
Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Huntington Beach and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed.