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Caitlyn Jenner’s initial ascent into American social strata was astronomical.
Before 1976, she was relatively unknown: a dyslexic kid from Westchester, New York, who had traveled to Iowa on a football scholarship before heading to California to pursue athletic glory.
Jenner, who at that point had not yet come out as transgender, sold insurance at night and trained for the decathlon during the day. She relied mostly on her then-wife Chrystie Crownover’s income as a United Airlines flight attendant to survive.
When Jenner won gold in Montreal on July 30, 1976, she became an almost instant American hero. By winning the decathlon, she had reclaimed victory for the U.S. from the Soviets, who four years earlier had ended America’s long streak of success in the Olympic event.
Shortly after crossing the finish line in the 1,500-meter final race, a spectator ran onto the track and handed Jenner a small U.S. flag on a stick. Americans watched as Jenner took a victory lap, waving the stars and stripes to a stadium of cheering crowds.
From that point onward, Jenner was regarded as a national icon.
She received the James E. Sullivan Award for the top amateur athlete in the U.S. The Associated Press named her Male Athlete of the Year in 1976. She graced the breakfast tables of millions of Americans as a spokesperson for Wheaties.
“Jenner is twirling the nation like a baton,” wrote New York Times columnist Tony Kornheiser in 1977. “(Jenner) and wife, Chrystie, are so high up on the pedestal of American heroism, it would take a crane to get them down.”
Jenner, who came out as transgender in 2015, now finds herself in unfamiliar territory. After decades basking in Olympic glory, and nearly 15 years starring alongside her socialite family on reality TV, Jenner has decided to try her hand at politics: launching a bid for the California governor’s office in the all-but-certain recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But after more than a month on the campaign trail, Jenner finds herself with few fans in the stands.
As a Republican transgender candidate, Jenner is caught between two worlds: conservatives who aren’t entirely comfortable with transgender people, and transgender-supporting liberals who take issue with Jenner’s conservative leanings.
Even though she’s garnered the lion’s share of national media attention related to the recall, it’s unclear whether Jenner will be able to carve out a base of support.
“The fact that... there’s virtually zero attraction, is it because she’s transgender or is it because she really hasn’t presented a single compelling qualification?” said longtime California Republican consultant Rob Stutzman.
It was “easier to come out as trans” than as a Republican, Jenner said in a recent TV interview. “It was a lot tougher to sell.”
Since announcing her candidacy, LGBT advocates on the left have taken issue with Jenner’s support for Trump, opposition to trans youth in sports, and her decision to hire one of Trump’s former strategists, Brad Parscale, for her gubernatorial campaign.
“Caitlyn Jenner is not the leader California needs. Her support of Donald Trump, the most virulent and vocal anti-LGBTQ president in American history, and her decision to hire Trump’s inner circle for her campaign are just two examples why,” said Wyatt Ronan, press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in 2015, the cultural focus has shifted to transgender issues, said Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College and expert in LGBTQ political issues. Jenner, she said, is aligning herself with .Republicans, who are currently “very much identified as anti-transgender.”
“I think it confirms for people, if they were not aware of her and her positions before, that while she might be transgender, she doesn’t really consider it an important part of her identity,” Michelson said.
“It also, to me, just sounds like Republican talking points.”
It’s rare and difficult for transgender people to win public office, Michelson said. The list of transgender officials is short, and the list of elected transgender Republicans is even shorter. But being transgender might not be an immediate disqualifier for Republican voters, Michelson said, especially if they feel Jenner supports their viewpoints.
“As the cliche goes, partisanship is a hell of a drug,” Michelson said. “If a Republican voter is looking at choices on the ballot, and they see that little ‘R’ Republican next one name, for many Republicans, that’s far more important than somebody’s gender identity.”
Republicans won’t hold Jenner’s decisions to transition against her, said Jennifer Kerns, a conservative talk radio host who previously worked as the communication for Proposition 8, the initiative that would have banned marriage equality in California.
“They just don’t want those policies forced upon their children,” she said.
Gina Roberts, a San Diego County Republican, made history last fall when she was the first transgender Republican elected to public office in California.
Roberts transitioned about two years before Jenner did, and said she was “thrilled” when the celebrity came out.
The San Diego Republican now holds a four-year term on the Valley Center Fire Protection District, and is a member of the San Diego County GOP’s Central Committee.
Roberts said she’s experienced a small amount of hate from Republicans over her gender. LGBT groups, on the other hand, are intolerant of her as a Republican.
“Yes there are a few jerks out there, but there’s jerks everywhere... I’d rather take grief from them then the (LGBT groups) that are telling me they’re 100% tolerant, then calling me transphobic,” she said. “If you’re not following the dogma 100% you’re definitely out. It’s discouraging.”
A newly released Gallup Poll showed that America’s Republicans are still cautious about supporting transgender issues. While 43% said they favor allowing openly transgender men and women to serve in the military, a much smaller portion, 10%, said young people should be allowed to play on teams that match their gender identity. Most Republicans, 86%, said boys and girls should play on sports teams that match their birth gender.
Conservatives in several states have introduced a slate of anti-trans bills this year, including school sports bans in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Caitlyn Jenner’s recall strategy
Stutzman, a longtime GOP political strategist who worked under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said at this point in time, many Republicans are unlikely to support a transgender candidate.
That could change, Stutzman said, if Republicans saw a transgender candidate with qualifications for the job who appeared competitive.
But that’s not Jenner.
Since announcing her intentions to run last month, she’s offered little in the way of policy proposals, focusing instead on promises to “cancel cancel culture” and “wake up the woke.”
In a recent campaign message, Jenner touted taking on the “Soviet Union” in the Olympics, which she says makes her a good candidate for taking on California’s teachers unions.
In order to win, Jenner really needs to amplify her common-sense conservative positions, said Kerns.
“Rather than being drawn into these social issues, (Jenner) needs to be out there talking more about jobs, the economy, and every day should be reminding voters of the pain and suffering that Gavin Newsom put Californians through for a year,” Kerns said.
California state officials have yet to schedule a date for the recall, which could be held as early as August. Even if Jenner improves her numbers, Newsom still enjoys strong support in the Golden State. Many pollsters and political experts say it would take a serious change of fortune between now and the recall for voters to remove the state’s top Democrat.
In the meantime, Jenner continues to campaign on her roots as an all-American, athletic hero.
“I go to Sacramento with the same ambition and winning spirit as I had when I came (to California), but now I’m going a different route,” she said in a recent TV interview with Fox 11. “I’m going to race for solutions.”