Caitlyn Jenner might just reshape the future of the Republican party.
The California gubernatorial recall election got the official green light last week, and the transgender advocate, reality star and Olympic gold medalist has declared herself in the running. While that announcement made plenty of headlines, few in state politics think Jenner — with her near-total lack of political experience — has a genuine shot at winning.
Instead, her potential influence stems from this simple fact: In very blue California, Jenner is part of a rare Republican breed which actually seems able to win state-wide elections — the Hollywood conservative.
Starting in the 1960s with former actor Sen. George Murphy, through Ronald Reagan in the 70s, and right up to Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, Republicans with a show business pedigree have been uniquely able to both grab the spotlight and build coalitions.
Fame is not the only key ingredient here. True, trained actors have a comfortable public style, and popularity does give candidates an initial boost. But name recognition cuts both ways: Murphy, Reagan and Schwarzenegger each had to win over voters skeptical about putting a “mere actor” in charge.
What also helped them succeed was the unique outlook of Republicans who emerge from movie studios and back lots: No matter how they campaign, once in office they tend to govern as economic conservatives and social liberals.
Jenner’s team quickly drove that point home. “She is very socially liberal,” one advisor told Axios.
It’s an approach that comes from years inside show business. Hollywood productions are like small towns. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people are thrown together for months at a time, working 16-hour days, seven days a week. Actors, musicians, cooks and carpenters come from all walks of life — if you don’t get along, the job doesn’t get done. This kind of life experience tends to shove hot-button social issues into the background.
That Hollywood brand of conservatism also appeals to the West’s strong libertarian streak. Even in left-leaning California, voters push back against too much government — especially too much government in everyone’s private life.
In fact, the decline of the GOP in California is often traced back to a pair of divisive state propositions that took on culture war dimensions.
In 1994, in the middle of a sharp economic downturn, Republicans championed a severe anti-immigrant measure. It passed, but mobilized minority and Latino voters for Democrats in the years that followed. In 2003, conservatives engineered a gay marriage ban. Over time, that experience pushed some moderate, suburban, and libertarian voters away from the GOP.
This year’s special election can give the Republican party a chance to reset that image and gain ground, no matter who wins. As a Democrat, I am no fan of the recall; it’s just one more example of a tiny, anarchic political minority imposing chaos on everyone else. But a two-party system really does work best with two functioning parties. If the state GOP can pitch a big tent and get back in the game, that benefits everyone.
Right now, odds are strong that Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomHannity to interview Caitlyn Jenner following gubernatorial announcement Majority of likely voters approve of Newsom’s handling of school reopenings, economy: poll Randy Quaid ‘seriously considering’ run for California governor MORE will keep his job. California has the lowest COVID infection rate in the nation; nearly half the population has gotten at least one vaccine dose. The state’s economy — fifth largest in the world — is set to come back strong.
But a smart campaign, even in defeat, could help the prospects of another recall candidate, Kevin Faulconer. The well-regarded former Republican mayor of San Diego is also running on a socially liberal/economically conservative platform. The recall could turn into his audition for next year’s main event.
If Newsom wins this fall, he’ll still have to face re-election in 2022. Faulconer would be ready to run again, with the kind of platform that once made Republicans here consistently competitive.
But to get there, to rehabilitate a diminished image, the GOP might need to rely on a long-shot candidate who — for the moment — is getting the wide media attention needed to begin molding the party’s brand toward that more appealing message.
Yes, Caitlyn Jenner’s personal history may make her an unusual standard-bearer for reviving GOP centrism. And it’s a long way from here to November, especially for a campaign novice.
But the star-studded history of Hollywood Republicans in state politics suggests her run just might spark a shift that lasts far beyond the current campaign.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.