There are two ways to look at the Republican Party in 2021. From one perspective, it represents a terrifying, increasingly extremist force hostile to democracy. From another, it represents a numerically declining and ideologically spent political movement–one ever more reliant on fake controversies, conspiracy theories, gimmick candidates and rearguard dilatory tactics like voter suppression and gerrymandering.
Both perspectives are valid. The Republican base is shrinking as a share of the national population. Every growing demographic is adamantly hostile to American conservative opinions. Over half of Americans are now unchurched. Conservatism has no answers for the biggest problems facing the country or the world, from record economic inequality to to healthcare to climate change. Even corporate America realizes where and who its customers are, and what they care about. All of which forces Republicans to take steps that are simultaneously frightful and comical in their attempts to salvage a hold on power.
Increasing reliance on celebrity candidates is another aspect of this. Republicans, despite their supposed antipathy for Hollywood, have frequently relied on celebrities for appeal, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger. But with Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and the dominance of media effects over legislation, Republicans are increasingly seeing celebrity candidates as a pathway to power they would not be able to achieve through normal means.
The candidacy of former Olympian and Kardashian celebrity Caitlyn Jenner in California is one such example. Jenner announced a run for California Governor as part of the conservative-fueled recall campaign against Gavin Newsom. Her candidacy is being propelled by a bevy of Republican consultants from Trumpworld, most notably Brad Parscale:
The New York Times‘ Washington correspondent Maggie Haberman tweeted Wednesday that Jenner has been consulting with Brad Parscale, who previously worked on Trump’s presidential campaign.
“Re axios story Caitlin Jenner possibly running for gov, Brad Parscale – who is said to have known Jenner for several years – is advising her on building her team,” Haberman reported. “He is not the campaign manager but providing guidance on who to fill specific roles.”
Jenner’s appeal for Republicans is understandable. As a trans woman, she could deflect accusations of being a social conservative. She is a well-known reality television star and has 3.5 million followers on twitter. It’s almost straight out of the Trump for President playbook.
But the challenge for Republicans here is that voters already experienced the Trump presidency. Running the same play twice will not necessarily get the same results, and California overwhelmingly rejected Trump himself twice.
The more direct comparison in California, of course, is the recall election that pushed Schwarzenegger into the governor’s mansion. Again, though: Californians have already been through this once, and Schwarzenegger’s left office far less popular than he entered it.
There are many reasons to believe that the 2021 recall campaign will not look anything like the previous one. Many smart analysts have expressed why, but Carla Marinucci and Jeremy White provide an effective synopsis at Politico today. In short, the state is far more Democratic than it was in 2003. Political polarization is much higher, which means that painting Jenner as the conservative she is will be devastating to her prospects in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office in over a decade.
Moreover, the recall itself is unpopular while Newsom himself remains highly popular in the state. The biggest complaints about Newsom fueling the recall signature drive were about pandemic restrictions and school openings, all of which are likely to be dormant issues come November’s vote. And recent evidence suggests that Democrats are still excited to vote and turning out in high numbers across the country, having been deeply motivated by conservative efforts to “trigger” the libs.
As for Jenner herself, she has little history of engagement in politics, voting only infrequently. She even skipped voting in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Schwarzenegger has a real track record of political involvement which Jenner does not.
Still, it’s not as if Republicans have many good options. California has firmly rejected Republican values and ideas. As California goes, so eventually goes the country–and conservatives know it. They know they’ve lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the majority of the electorate, and they’re losing more ground every day.
When you’ve lost the battle for the actual voters, all that’s left is gimmick campaigns and attempts to subvert democracy. With the California recall, Republicans are pushing both. But it’s not likely to succeed.