What Caitlyn Jenner's gubernatorial launch means for the California recall

Caitlyn Jenner. Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images via CNN.

The brewing California gubernatorial recall is one of the more fascinating political dramas unfolding in 2021.

Who would have thought Caitlyn Jenner could be the great Republican hope -- and potentially the nation's first transgender governor?

What Matters went to CNN's Maeve Reston, who has been closely following the effort to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, to get the latest on what's going on in the Golden State.

What Matters: The big news is that Jenner, of Olympics and Kardashian fame, says she plans to run if the recall goes ahead. How does a transgender woman fit in with today's GOP and what chance does she have of winning?

Maeve Retson: Jenner is definitely going to have a big impact on this race, because of the attention that her candidacy will garner. Fame and name recognition can go a long way in helping you win a recall race in California -- a state that requires tens of millions of television advertising dollars to raise your profile. But given that she's a rookie candidate, I think we need to see a lot more from her before we speculate on her chances of winning -- and there is no evidence yet to suggest that she will be a consensus choice for Republicans here given her lack of governing experience and the fact that so little is known about her policy positions, beyond her advocacy on transgender issues. Her history of endorsing former President Donald Trump and then rescinding her support in 2018 could complicate her ability to win the trust of his supporters.

Still, her candidacy is a complicating factor for Newsom because she's likely to draw a much broader audience when she's out on the talk show and pop culture circuit, where she could drive up Newsom's negatives by talking about why she believes he should be recalled.

What Matters: I know that Newsom got caught dining out when everyone was supposed to be dining in. Is hypocrisy the reason he's facing this recall effort?

MR: That story has endured as a major issue for him, because it exemplified what people hate about politicians -- the notion that rules don't apply to them the way they do to everyone else. Throughout his career, he's always tried to fight the perception that he is part of the rich elite, so dining with a lobbyist at French Laundry in the middle of Covid didn't help him with that vulnerability. It also occurred during a time when people were enraged by what they viewed as his overly strict and sometimes erratic Covid policies. So it's an episode that's likely to shadow him, even in the years ahead if he runs for president.

What Matters: What kind of danger is Newsom actually in? Is he unpopular enough with voters to suffer this ultimate punishment or is this a cynical effort to damage Newsom, who has presidential ambitions?

MR: Newsom's approval ratings among Democrats are holding steady. In a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, 53% of likely voters said they approved of how he is handling his job and only four in ten likely voters said they would vote to remove him in the potential recall, while 56% said they would vote no and 5% are unsure. Many Californians also believe the worst of the pandemic is behind them, and Newsom has been steadily focused on accelerating the pace of Covid vaccinations over the past few months -- which was a problem for him initially -- so that work could help him fend off a recall.

California is also a much more Democratic state now than it was back in 2003 when former Gov. Gray Davis was recalled, so the GOP has a steep road ahead. If Newsom's team can manage to turn out his base to defend him, even many Republican strategists acknowledge that he can probably survive this. But the pandemic has made the race something of a wild card. If the recall lands on the ballot in the fall -- and the state's kids still aren't fully back to public school -- that could be a real problem for him.

What Matters: What, generally, is the timeline and process we're looking at for this?

MR: The county registrars and California secretary of state are still in the process of verifying whether there are the 1,495,709 valid signatures needed in order for the recall to qualify for the ballot, but every indication suggests that it will. Recall proponents turned in more than 2 million signatures to give themselves a cushion. So far, state officials have counted 1,188,073 valid signatures and the validity rate has been high: nearly 82%. County registrars have until the end of this month to complete their checking and tallying. There are lot of other bureaucratic steps after that, but my sources tell me the recall could land on the ballot as early as August or possibly later this fall.

What Matters: I'm old enough to remember that last California recall of Davis. How is this recall different than that one?

MR: Right now Newsom's approval ratings are still much stronger than Davis' were back in 2003 when he was recalled -- and that's the big indicator to watch. Californians were furious at Davis over the energy crisis, which led to rolling blackouts, and his decision to raise vehicle registration fees to address the state's budget deficit. The state budget is actually in very good shape right now; and after the pandemic Newsom is trying to convince the state's voters that things will be back to normal by June. So he is trying to be more proactive than Davis was in proving to voters that he deserves the job.

What Matters: The Davis recall was a wild election, where a ton of personalities ran and Arnold Schwarzenegger became California's governor. This is asking you for a wild guess, but who could be the Schwarzenegger of 2021?

MR: Once a recall election is officially announced, it's going to be a circus because the bar for filing will be so low. So along with Jenner, I expect we'll see hundreds of candidates from social media stars to low-level lawmakers looking for a moment in the spotlight. The biggest threat to Newsom would be a decision by a prominent Democrat to put their name on the list. Because if Democratic voters have a viable backup option on the ballot, those who are frustrated with Newsom are more likely to participate and have a justification for voting to recall. Some are urging former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to run, and he could be a very formidable contender.

What Matters: About 1.5 million signatures are required to force this recall to a ballot. Gathering that many names takes time and money. Who is behind it, how much did they spend and what is their goal?

MR: This really has been a unique grassroots effort led by retired Yolo County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Orrin Heatlie, who was joined by 124 others in submitting the recall petition. His group, called California Patriot Coalition -- Recall Governor Newsom, enlisted volunteers to help them collect signatures in every California county including small business owners, parents and restaurant owners who were angry about the Covid shutdowns. As that effort took shape, a second group led by prominent figures in the California GOP including longtime consultant Anne Dunsmore and former chairman of the California Republican Party Tom Del Beccaro helped raise a lot of money for the effort. Ultimately many national Republicans endorsed the campaign, and both the California State Republican Party and the Republican National Committee made major donations.

What Matters: From the national perspective, California is a deep blue state completely run by Democrats. What effect could this recall have on Democrats' control there?

MR: This is a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 and the progressive views of most voters aren't going to change during this process, but some here do see a chance for the GOP to reach a broader audience through the recall. Republicans vying to replace Newsom are attempting to channel the outrage among many parents here about the slow reopening of public schools -- and that's an issue that has particular salience in the Latino community. So it may give the GOP an opening to start new conversations with voters.

What Matters: What's the question I should have asked but didn't?

MR: Does Caitlyn Jenner already have a reality show lined up that will chronicle her campaign for governor? I don't know the answer, but I wouldn't be surprised if she finds a way to marry her reality TV career with her political aspirations.

Q&A by Zachary B. Wolf and Maeve Reston, CNN via The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

The Gayly. 4/24/2021 @1:35 p.m. CST.