Is Caitlyn Jenner the next Arnold Schwarzenegger? Even some in GOP are skeptical

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Seema Mehta
·5 min read
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Caitlyn Jenner, who supported Trump in 2016, is running for California governor as a Republican.
Caitlyn Jenner attends the Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin in Beverly Hills on Sept. 7, 2019. Jenner said Friday she would run for governor of California. (Richard Shotwell / Invision/AP)

Republicans have a history of turning celebrities into politicians — Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono (congressman from Palm Springs) and Clint Eastwood (mayor of Carmel) among them.

Does Caitlyn Jenner have the same potential?

The former Olympian and reality TV star on Friday announced a historic campaign to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in the recall election. On paper, her fame looks just like what the Republicans need: a boldface name at a time when they are struggling in an increasingly deep blue liberal state. But it might not be that simple.

From the pages of The Times, here's what you need to know about her run for governor:

Who is Caitlyn Jenner?

Jenner was born in 1949 in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and attended school in New York and Connecticut before going to college in Iowa. Jenner became a renowned decathlete and later moved to California, breaking records around the world and winning a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics.

Jenner’s triumphs turned the athlete into a celebrity; the star was pictured on the Wheaties cereal box, appeared on television shows and in movies, and posed for the cover of Playgirl magazine. In 1991, Jenner married Kris Kardashian. The couple had two children, while Kris had four children from her prior marriage to prominent attorney Robert Kardashian. The blended family has been part of the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” reality television show on E! since 2007, reviving Jenner’s celebrity.

She identified as a trans woman in 2015.

Could she be the next Schwarzenegger?

Even some in the GOP are not sure if she can be the next Schwarzenegger, who swept into the governorship in a 2003 recall that ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

“What credentials are there?” said Don Sipple, a political consultant who produced advertising for Schwarzenegger’s 2003 campaign. “What’s the groundwork that’s been laid in the public policy arena to suggest she would be a plausible candidate or a plausible governor?”

When Jenner first publicly acknowledged a few weeks ago that she was considering a run, another GOP veteran voiced doubts that she could rekindle the Schwarzenegger magic.

Rob Stutzman, a longtime advisor to Schwarzenegger, said he was not sure Jenner's run "would be considered a game-changer."

“Arnold was the most famous person in the world aside from the pope. She’s famous but not that famous,” he said. “And Arnold already had some credibility in the public-policy space — he had sponsored a statewide ballot measure, had campaigned for candidates, been involved with the presidential physical fitness council.”

Other GOP candidates who have said they will run in a recall election include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, businessman and 2018 gubernatorial hopeful John Cox and former Rep. Doug Ose.

Why is she running?

Jenner has not given any interviews about her candidacy, relying instead on short social media statements.

But she seems to be in the camp of people who believe that California is broken and needs fixing.

“As Californians, we face a now-or-never opportunity to fundamentally fix our state before it’s too late,” Jenner, 71, wrote on Twitter on Friday. “Taking on entrenched Sacramento politicians and the special interests that fund them requires a fighter who isn’t afraid to do what is right. I am a proven winner and the only outsider who can put an end to Gavin Newsom’s disastrous time as governor.”

Jenner previously toyed with challenging Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018. But this is the first time she has officially announced a run for office. In her announcement, Jenner slammed Newsom’s pandemic closure policies, saying they have harmed schoolchildren and small business owners.

“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,” Jenner wrote, referring to a birthday dinner Newsom attended at the exclusive French Laundry restaurant after asking Californians to abide by restrictions on multifamily gatherings.

What do we know about her politics?

She describes herself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and publicly supported Trump in 2016. That early support could be a problem in blue California, where the former president is very unpopular.

In 2018, after the president pushed anti-trans policies, Jenner said she made a mistake in backing him.

Jenner wrote in the Washington Post that she had hoped to change transphobic attitudes and policies from inside the system but had grown disillusioned by the president’s approach, such as barring transgender people from serving in the military.

“Sadly, I was wrong,” she wrote in an editorial in the Washington Post in October 2018. “The reality is that the trans community is being relentlessly attacked by this president.”

“I have gotten more flack for being a conservative Republican than I have for being trans,” she said during a 2016 appearance at the University of Pennsylvania.

The following year, she told CNN’s Don Lemon that she was thinking of running for office.

“I would have to look, over the next year or two ... can I do a better job on the outside, or am I in a position now that I can do a better job for my community on the inside,” Jenner said. “And if that’s the case, if I find us on the inside, I would seriously look at it.”

As Jenner builds a campaign staff, she is reportedly surrounding herself with Trump loyalists, including a fundraiser associated with the rally that preceded the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Jenner was spotted dining Thursday night at Tuscany il Ristorante in Westlake Village with former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, along with former state GOP chairman Frank Visco, actor John O’Hurley, businessman Zack Schuler and others.

Times staff writers Christie D’Zurilla contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.