Caitlyn Jenner: I'm running to be the next governor of California

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, file)

Interesting timing here, making her candidacy official on the day that the AP is running a story titled “California goes from worst to first in virus infections.”

Between the brightening pandemic picture, the coming economic boom, and the state’s heavy Democratic lean, right now only a sucker would bet on Gavin Newsom being recalled successfully this fall. And only an even bigger sucker would bet on him being replaced with a Republican if he is.

Still, there’s a strategy here. A long longshot, but a shot nonetheless.

Axios reports that her campaign will include some Trump alumni:

She’s assembled a team of prominent GOP operatives including Tony Fabrizio, the top pollster on Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, Ryan Erwin, founder of RedRock Strategies, and Tyler Deaton, president of Allegiance Strategies…

Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale, a personal friend of Jenner’s, has helped her assemble her team but doesn’t plan to take an official title on the campaign…

A campaign adviser tells Axios that Jenner has greater name ID than Newsom and can command the kind of earned media that “will go to every possible demographic you could think of.”

Jenner, a trans woman, “is very socially liberal,” the adviser said. “She’s running as someone that’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”

What’s the scenario in which a state Biden won by 29 points ends up with a transgender Republican as governor? It’s simple. The recall ballot contains two questions. First, should Gavin Newsom be recalled? And second, which of the following candidates should become governor if he is? If more than 50 percent answer yes to the recall question then whichever candidate has the highest percentage on question two becomes governor. And it’s not completely unthinkable that that might be Jenner *if* there are dozens of Democrats also on the ballot. In that case we could conceivably see the entire Republican share of the electorate (assume 35-40 percent) unite behind her while the remaining 60-65 percent of Dems split a dozen different ways. In a race like that, name recognition is huge. And that’s the one thing Jenner, a political novice who’s rarely even voted in other elections, has.

How long a shot is this, though? Pretty darned long.

Start with the fact that not one but two recent polls have put support for recalling Newsom at just 40 percent. Anything can happen between now and November, but as I say, you’d expect Newsom to be in a stronger position politically by then, not a weaker one. The anti-Newsom forces will need to turn out en masse to have a chance. Consider too just how lopsided California has become in its partisanship over the past 20 years. Tim Miller pointed out recently that the last governor to be successfully recalled, Gray Davis, won his initial bid for the job by just five points and 400,000 votes. Newsom won it in 2018 by 24 points and three million votes. Biden topped Trump last year by five million. Dislodging a Democrat in California is a herculean task in 2021.

There’s also the small matter of whether socially conservative Republicans in California would unite behind a transgender candidate, and whether anti-Newsom Democrats would consider supporting someone with various former Trump staffers on her team. There’s nothing stopping a more traditional Republican from jumping into the race to siphon off some of Jenner’s potential support, causing the right-wing side to splinter as well. (John Cox, the 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee, is already in.) Even with Democrats deeply divided among multiple candidates, one will probably be able to muster enough votes to top Jenner if she can’t get social cons behind her — and maybe she can’t, given how trans issues have become a culture-war flashpoint lately. And if Newsom looks like he’s in serious danger of losing on the recall question, Dems will likely scramble to recruit a big-name figure who can jump in and consolidate liberal voters, averting the “splintered field” nightmare scenario. Former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is one obvious possibility, as is former presidential candidate Tom Steyer.

But that sort of strategizing is what makes the recall election interesting. It’s in Newsom’s interest to keep big-name Dems out of the race to ensure that he remains the most appealing option on the ballot to liberals. If Villaraigosa jumps in, Dems who like him might be more willing to vote yes on the recall question in hopes of replacing Newsom with their preferred candidate. Newsom wants an unappetizing menu of Democratic choices on the ballot’s second question — but that’s precisely the scenario that might produce a Republican upset.

On the other hand, there are backfire possibilities for the GOP here too:

The one good thing for the GOP would be if Newsom got bounced. But even then, the timing would be bad. A new Republican governor would have to immediately begin running for reelection in 2022.

And, as Wilson adds in an understatement, “There’s no guarantee he could hold the office.” Not in this blue state in a high-turnout general election.

One bad thing that could happen for the GOP would be if an even more liberal Democrat entered the recall race and won.

“You’ve got to think this thing through,” says Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. “What happens if [Assemblywoman] Lorena Gonzalez runs?”

Is it a win for the GOP if Newsom is recalled … and replaced by a farther-left progressive like Steyer? Is it a win if Jenner pulls the upset, governs weakly for a year with no legislative support, and then gets obliterated in 2022? What if Newsom grows more popular and ends up winning the recall vote decisively, setting him up to cruise to reelection in 2022 and possibly making him a national figure? Potentially that could have effects downballot next year, helping Dems build on their advantages in the state legislature or even flipping some of the closely run House districts that Republicans narrowly won in 2020.

Bottom line: There’s basically zero chance of a Republican winning this fall *and* still holding the office in 2023, so who cares?