Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she will run for governor in the California recall election immediately prompted comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful run in 2003.
But there’s no comparison.
Republicans are drawing on a false equivalency in the hopes that history might repeat itself. However, their best chance of winning an election to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom just went out the door. Schwarzenegger’s appeal was built on the idea that he was above partisan politics. He may have been a Republican on the ballot, but he ran as a moderate and came under heavy attack from conservative challenger Tom McClintock, who’s now in Congress.
Jenner, by contrast, is being advised by Brad Parscale and other former Trump hands, ensuring her candidacy will be tied to Team Trump. In fact, Jenner’s first moves already suggest she’ll be running a national campaign, relying on national media and Trump cult-of-personality platforms like Sean Hannity and Newsmax. That might help her raise money from Trump voters, but the problem in California is there aren’t that many of them. And she might even have to compete for them with Randy Quaid, another unqualified Trumpian celebrity from the D-List.
Newsom in 2021 is no Gray Davis
In 2003, Republican voter registration was at 35.3%. As of this February, it was down to 24.1%. In fact, since the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, more than 33,000 voters have left the Republican Party in California.
In the 2003 special election that recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, the recall passed with nearly 5 million votes, Schwarzenegger won with 4.2 million votes, and more than 9 million Californians participated.
The 2020 general election saw the highest participation from voters in California since 1952, with 17.8 million voters turning out. Joe Biden received 5.1 million more votes than President Donald Trump in California, and nearly 10.2 million Democrats cast their votes compared with 5.3 million Republicans.
Newsom opponents just got the official word this week that their petition drive for a recall had succeeded. Actually defeating Newsom will be more difficult. He is in a much more formidable position than Davis was two decades ago.
Newcomers to Golden State politics may not be aware of the condition of the state in 2003. Davis’ numbers were on life support driven by a fiscal crisis that had produced a budget deficit of $35 billion. This crippling deficit prompted Davis to impose a massively unpopular increase in the vehicle license tax. Today, Newsom presides over a $15 billion budget surplus that he is using to help reopen businesses and schools, and support the state’s out-of-work population hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A chance to triumph:California recall effort could end Newsom’s career or make him a Democratic hero
The only prayer Republicans had to successfully recall Newsom and elect a Republican was to keep the recall localized, get behind a pragmatic candidate like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and hope for a very low turnout election. Jenner’s campaign puts a bright spotlight on the contest. She may have high-name ID. She may raise some serious money from the GOP faithful. But her participation in this election just nationalized this race and gives Democrats a reason to pay attention and engage.
It’s hard to imagine a state that overwhelmingly rejected the presidency of a reality-show host has any appetite to replace their governor with a Trump clone. Any Republican who tries to compare 2003 with 2021 is either a fool or a con artist, probably both.
Democratic dominance in California
In his inauguration speech, Schwarzenegger said, “I could feel the public hunger for our elected officials to work together, to work openly and to work for the greater good. … I ask all of you to join me in a new partnership for California. One that is civil and respectful of our diverse population. … I have an immigrant’s optimism.”
With rhetoric like that, Schwarzenegger couldn’t get elected dog catcher in today’s GOP.
The comparisons between Jenner and Schwarzenegger are comically off-base. The simple truth is that California is in a much different position in 2021 than it was in 2003. The state has grown more progressive and has become the heartbeat of the resistance against the radicalization of the Republican Party under its leader, Donald Trump. The Republican Party has gotten smaller, and it has been relegated to back-seat status, frozen out of power in the State Assembly, the State Senate and every statewide office.
Caitlyn Jenner is Team Trump’s handpicked candidate. Anyone selling the idea that she’s the way back to power for California Republicans is scamming you.
Kurt Bardella is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a former aide in the California State Assembly and Senate. During the 2003 recall, he was a producer at a CBS-affiliate in California. From 2006-13, he served as spokesperson for multiple members of the California Congressional Delegation.