'I'm in:' Republican Caitlyn Jenner is running for California governor

Caitlyn Jenner is officially running for governor.

The 71-year-old longtime Republican, Olympic hero, reality TV personality and transgender rights activist, had been consulting with GOP advisers as she had considered joining the field of candidates hoping to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a likely recall election later this year.

The celebrity activist, who described herself as "economically conservative, socially progressive" in a People magazine interview last year, immediately would stand out in a field that so far has failed to attract a nationally known contender. Her potential run would come nearly two decades after the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Republican who used his Hollywood fame as a springboard to the state’s highest office in a 2003 recall election.

In her first official statement as a candidate, Jenner said she was an advocate for lower taxes, and hit on some of the familiar talking points brought up by Republicans in favor of the recall: "Small businesses have been devastated because of the lockdowns. An entire generation of children have lost a year of education and have been prevented from going back to school."

Her statement went on to say, "This isn't the California we know. This is Gavin Newsom's California, where he orders us to stay home but goes out to dinner with his lobbyist friends."

Newsom's camp tweeted that Jenner has ties to the Trump campaign fundraisers and that she and her wealth should be watched closely. 

San Jose State Political Science Department Chair Garrick Percival said that Jenner's entry into the recall race will attract media attention, at least initially, adding that "Anytime you have prominent celebrities entering the race... it can bring some unpredictability."

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.

In the 2003 recall election, more than 130 candidates ran. A crowded field can sometimes improve the odds for long-shot candidates.

"You only need a plurality of the vote. Someone with just 40 percent of the vote could theoretically win if there are lots of candidates on the ballot," Percival said.

The effort has been largely fueled by criticism of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. Republicans who have announced their intention to run include 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.

The team around her includes former President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who is helping Jenner assemble an inner circle; longtime Republican strategist Ryan Erwin, a veteran of California and presidential politics who would become the campaign’s general consultant; and GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren.

Jenner made headlines in recent years with her back-and-forth relationship with Trump, who remains broadly unpopular in California outside his GOP base. Trump lost the heavily Democratic state to Joe Biden 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.

"Gavin Newsom's whole strategy is going to try and tie the recall to Trump supporters, Trump advisors, and Trump himself. To the extent he can do that, is to his advantage," Percival said. "Although Donald Trump received more than 6 million votes in the state, he remains deeply unpopular in parts of California."

As an untested candidate in a potentially crowded field, it’s difficult to predict what Jenner's coalition of supporters might look like. Republican social conservatives, for example, might be hesitant to line up with a transgender candidate.

Newsom, who as San Francisco mayor ignored the law and issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, has close ties to the LGBTQ community.

It’s also not known what role Trump might play in the election, if any, and how the GOP donor community that is crucial to funding a campaign would react. Jenner 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.

Jenner’s celebrity status would be an advantage in what could be a chaotic two-month campaign. She’s widely known for shows including "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" and the spin-off "I Am Cait."

With multiple candidates, California Republican national committeeman Shawn Steel said it’s possible that a winner could top the field with as little as 20% of the vote.

Jenner "is not to be discounted at all," said Steel, who has not spoken with her about the race. If she enters the contest, "Caitlyn adds a whole new level of excitement."

It’s not uncommon in California for residents to seek recalls, but they rarely get on the ballot — and even fewer succeed. Recent statewide polling has suggested that Newsom would hold his office.

County election officials are reviewing the signatures submitted by recall organizers to determine whether it will qualify. The vote likely would take place in the fall.