In her five days as a Republican candidate for California governor, Caitlyn Jenner had a Twitter spat with a Democratic congressman, unveiled a website to sell T-shirts and other campaign swag and posted a photograph of herself with a startup business owner.
But she hasn’t spoken a word in public.
Jenner’s written statement last week that she would enter a likely recall election that could oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom generated international publicity. But so far the political newcomer’s campaign exists in the virtual realm, a string of tweets and vaguely worded posts with no specifics about what she might do if elected.
Jenner, a 71-year-old transgender and former Olympic decathlon gold medalist, has tweeted: “Formal announcement to come soon.” Each day inevitably builds more expectation about her initial appearance, which would give many voters a first glimpse at the reality TV personality through a political lens.
There is a risk if the silence continues too long.
“That will become the first impression, that she doesn’t have anything to say,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran Republican consultant who advised Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 California recall election in which the former bodybuilder claimed the governorship.
“People will move on and become dismissive,” Stutzman warned, noting Jenner must overcome natural skepticism that comes with her first-time candidacy.
“That first impression as a candidate is important, even if they are famous,” he added. “So far, I don’t think she’s made any impression.”
Still, she has Newsom’s attention. His campaign sent out fundraising appeals hooked to Jenner’s candidacy. “We’re going to need help keeping up with Caitlyn’s personal wealth and ability to raise money from right-wing donors,” one said.
Jenner announced Friday that she would enter the race, posting a statement online saying she was joining the growing list of candidates seeking to oust Newsom before the end of his first term.
Jenner has sketched only a vague outline of what her agenda might look like: Cutting taxes. Repairing the economy. Providing a counterweight to California’s Democratic-dominated politics.
The risks for a candidate emerging on the political stage can be seen in the 2008 presidential campaign, when Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who was then largely unknown, stumbled in interviews with then-CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric. Her appearance went on to be widely parodied on late-night TV.
So far, Jenner’s words have been few, though they can reach a large audience. She has nearly 11 million Instagram followers and 3.5 million followers on Twitter.
In a tweet exchange last weekend, California Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu schooled Jenner in how district attorneys are elected, after she suggested in a tweet that they were appointed by Newsom. He also asked if she understood basic functions of government and sent her a link to a “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon video on how bills becomes laws.
Jenner pushed back, calling his remarks “condescending.” She said she knew district attorneys are elected, but “the buck stops with Newsom.”
A candidate can use social media to start a campaign, “but you can’t win it that way,” Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney said.
To reach an electorate as large as California, she will need to do more traditional campaigning, including getting on TV.
“Other candidates are going to scoop up support. If she waits too long, there might not be many votes left on the table,” Pitney added. “She’s got to prove she ought to be taken seriously.”
For now, Jenner’s website is mostly a vehicle for soliciting donations and selling coffee mugs, wine glasses and other commemorative items for her campaign. There are no detailed policy positions.
She tweeted Monday that the recall election had been certified, which is not technically true. A preliminary count of petition signatures showed it had enough support to qualify for the ballot, but it will not be certified by the Secretary of State until later.
Among other statements, she wrote on Twitter that “Banning fracking only increases our dependence on foreign oil,” criticized Newsom for sending out fundraising appeals after her announcement and described herself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. On Instagram, she can be seen holding up a campaign coffee mug, which sells for $25.
Other Republicans running to replace Newsom include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in a 2018 landslide, and former Congressman Doug Ose. Dozens of other candidates, serious and not, are expected to enter the race.
When Schwarzenegger ran, he surrounded himself with an impressive brain trust, including former Secretary of State George Schultz and billionaire Warren Buffett, to confer seriousness about his campaign. The team advising Jenner has included ex-President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Brad Parscale and GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren, who also worked for Trump’s campaign.
Schwarzenegger appeared Monday on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” He said he is good friends with Jenner and indicated he had advised her about running — “just about everyone that’s thinking about running has called me,” though he declined to discuss any specifics about Jenner.
He said anyone could win in a recall, given the unhappy mood among the public. But Schwarzenegger is not picking a favorite in the race and said he also is good friends with Newsom.
The California secretary of state’s office said that more than 1.6 million recall signatures had been deemed valid, about 100,000 more than required to put the question to voters. People who signed petitions now have 30 days to withdraw their signatures, though it’s unlikely enough will do so to stop the election.
In a recall election, voters would be asked two questions: First, should Newsom be recalled? The second question would include a list of replacement candidates to choose from, but the results only would matter if a majority of voters cast ballots to remove Newsom.