Dave Hannigan: Race to be next California governor the latest challenge for Caitlyn Jenner

Her intention to run as a Republican could face pushback from both sides of political divide

 Caitlyn Jenner has launched her campaign to become the next governor of California. Photograph: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

Caitlyn Jenner has launched her campaign to become the next governor of California. Photograph: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

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Caitlyn Jenner launched her campaign to become the next governor of California with a publicity shot showing her behind the wheel of a red and white Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite convertible, her dog alongside her in the passenger seat.

A stylish image and a reminder that, for much of the 1980s, Jenner dabbled quite seriously in professional sportscar racing. Of course, it was soon pointed that perhaps it wasn’t the wisest shot to use given that, in 2015, she drove her Cadillac Escalade too fast along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu and caused the death of 69-year-old Kim Howe.

“I have been a compassionate disrupter throughout my life, from representing the United States and winning a gold medal at the Olympics to helping advance the movement for equality,” said Jenner, announcing her intention to run as a Republican and unseat Democratic governor Gavin Newsom in the recall election later this year.

“As Californians, we face a now-or-never opportunity to fundamentally fix our state before it’s too late . . . 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.”

Forty-five years have passed since she clinched victory in the decathlon at Montreal and had a tiny American flag thrust into her hand by a fan. A simple gesture spawned an iconic image that made her instantly famous and, via an extensive endorsement portfolio, very rich.

Jenner decamped to Hollywood, did a turn on CHiPs, was considered for the Superman role that went to Christopher Reeve, and made cameos on all sorts of television shows. Following a second giddy spin on the celebrity-go-round in the Kardashian vortex, it was a measure of her enduring fame that the announcement of her transition from male to female was watched on television by more than 20 million Americans in 2015.

With 3.5 million followers on Twitter (nearly twice that of Newsom), she has the name recognition and media savvy of a former athlete nearly half a century in the public eye, and, if any state is especially amenable to being the first to have a trans governor, it’s probably California.

However, her fledgling candidacy is not without very obvious flaws. It isn’t just her utter lack of qualifications, dearth of executive experience and, beyond lowering taxes, paucity of policy ideas. None of those proved insurmountable obstacles to Arnold Schwarzenegger, winner of the state’s 2003 recall election, or, indeed, Donald Trump in his bid for the White House.

Styling herself an outsider candidate in a similar vein to that pair, her association with Trump is proving most problematic. She enthusiastically endorsed him in 2016 on the rather spurious grounds he was somehow going to be good for the LGBTQ community. By the time she distanced herself from him in 2018, it was too little too late. All those photographs of her in a Maga baseball cap, damning evidence of her collaboration with a regime that did so much to impinge upon and reduce gay and trans rights.

Then there’s the hiring of Brad Parscale, one-time campaign manager for Trump, as a key strategist. A character eventually regarded as too toxic even for that effluent corner of the political universe, prior to getting involved with Jenner, Parscale’s last outing on the national stage came via police bodycam footage of him being arrested shirtless, barefoot and drunk in his driveway. His wife had called the cops because of his threatening behaviour with a small arsenal of guns.

With a hard-won reputation for grifting, Parscale’s involvement has some regarding Jenner’s campaign as little more than a money-making enterprise. She’s already been involved in an online spat about the appointment of district attorneys that exposed her ignorance of gubernatorial powers and there are no policy positions outlined on her website. But, among the range of merchandise immediately available are a pair of “Caitlyn for California” whiskey glasses for just $35.

For all the cynicism surrounding the candidacy, her presence on the ballot would actually be timely. Right now, Republicans across many states are working on legislation to prohibit the participation of transgender athletes in youth sports, a hot button issue for conservatives and the right-wing outrage industrial complex.

“I think every trans person, if they’re into athletics, should have an opportunity to compete and to improve themselves,” said Jenner. “I think sports is such a great way to learn a lot about yourself. And yeah, hopefully they’ll have the opportunity in the future to do whatever they can do. I’m all for it!”

That stance puts Jenner completely at odds with the Republican base, the very people she needs to have any chance of winning this race because, as much as they might relish a groundbreaking trans governor, Democratic voters will never forgive her initial support of Trump. Against that background, it’s difficult to see where she draws support from and some in her own party are already disavowing her because “biological standards matter”.

“Sports, it’s not real life,” said Jenner a couple of years back. “What did I do for the world in 1976, besides maybe getting a few people to exercise a little bit? I didn’t make a difference in the world.”

As governor of California, running the fifth largest economy in the world, she would be in a position to do just that. Improbable? Unlikely? As has been most of her story so far.

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