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Campaign stunt, ads bring California governor recall into new phase

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                                Caitlyn Jenner speaks at the fourth Women’s March in Los Angeles.


    Caitlyn Jenner speaks at the fourth Women’s March in Los Angeles.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. >> California’s recall election now features “the beast” and a “compassionate disruptor.”

That’s how John Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, Republicans running for California governor, pitched themselves to voters today in new campaign ads, taking different tones in their bids to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. It marked a new phase in the contest, with Newsom appearing later that day at his first campaign-style event to accept the endorsement of two firefighter unions.

Cox, a 65-year-old businessman who lost in a landslide to Newsom in 2018, released a video calling himself “the beast” to the photogenic Newsom’s “beauty.” He resorted to name-calling reminiscent of former President Donald Trump, repeatedly labeling Newsom a “pretty boy” who lacks governing chops.

Launching a bus tour with a live Kodiak bear named Tag ambling behind him in the hot sun, Cox promised to bring “beastly” changes to state government. He spent $5 million to air a 30-second version on television statewide, his campaign said, a major amount this early in the campaign and indicative of the need to raise his profile.

The stunt was aimed at drawing eyes to his campaign, but he promised to discuss “serious issues” — like bringing down the cost of housing, boosting the state’s water resources and preventing special interests from influencing government.

“You have to get this message out and that’s what we’re going to do here,” he said.

Animal rights group PETA and state Sen. Ben Hueso, who authored a state law banning use of most animals in circuses, condemned his use of a bear as a campaign prop. The bear, which Cox said was born in captivity, is trained and has appeared in movies and commercials.

Jenner, meanwhile, released a video with a more inspirational and patriotic tone. She calls herself a “compassionate disruptor” in the ad that features clips from her Summer Olympics appearance in 1976, when she won the gold medal in the men’s decathlon.

Jenner, now a 71-year-old transgender woman, has held no campaign events since announcing her candidacy nearly two weeks ago. A televised town hall in her hometown of Malibu is planned for Wednesday. The ad offers her most expansive commentary as a candidate.

“I’m running to be governor for all Californians, to reclaim our true identity, to bring back the gold to the Golden State,” Jenner says in the ad.

The ad shows one photo of Newsom and never says his name, though she is clearly blasting his pandemic policies by highlighting closed businesses and kids out of school. Jenner’s campaign didn’t comment on whether it was running corresponding TV ads.

Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at California State University-Sacramento, noted both candidates left out their Republican political affiliations, which could be smart given just a quarter of voters identify with the party.

In addition, Cox’s ad could confuse voters because “beast” often brings a negative connotation.

“We don’t think of bears as fixing things, we think of bears as destructive,” she said.

Late today, Newsom was flanked by more than a dozen firefighters as he accepted union endorsements.

“This is a big day as we really kick off our efforts to defeat this recall,” the governor said.

He declined to comment on Jenner’s or Cox’s ads. Instead, he pivoted to the state’s efforts on vaccinations, wildfire prevention and job creation. Wearing a zip up with the California bear logo on it, Newsom turned to his own bear-related metaphor to say the state is “roaring back” from the pandemic.

He then turned to well-worn talking points painting the recall as a partisan power grab led by extremists. But when pushed by a reporter, he acknowledged some Democrats and independents are frustrated, too.

“This was a challenging year for the world, not just this country and our state. And in that process, I understand why people express themselves the way they did. So my job is to earn that trust back,” he said.

Newsom wasn’t expected to face an election until 2022 but critics of his coronavirus response and liberal policies succeeded in collecting more than the 1.5 million signatures needed for a recall election. There are still several steps remaining before the election is officially certified, but the signatures collection and verification were the biggest hurdles. The election will likely be scheduled for the fall.

Other Republicans in the race include former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Congressman Doug Ose.

Cox won less than 40% of the vote against Newsom in 2018 and has never won elected office despite many attempts. He said that run gives him a statewide base to grow this time around. Faulconer has not run a statewide campaign and Ose briefly ran for governor in 2018 before dropping out.

Cox pitched himself today as a man who knows struggle. He grew up with a single mom, paid his way through college, and launched a succesful business career, mostly in real estate. He’s already spent $10 million of his own money on the race and said he is willing to spend more.

“Millions of people voted for something named John Cox but he was never a very, I don’t think, a very clearly defined John Cox, and so we’re going to define him a lot better,” said Fred Davis, an ad-maker now working for Cox who is known for creating quirky, attention-grabbing political spots.

Cox twice declined to answer whether he’d welcome former President Donald Trump to campaign for him. Trump endorsed Cox in 2018 but is unpopular in the state.

“The pretty boy politician is going to make it all about the former president and the partisan battles of the past. This is about the California of the here and now,” Cox said.

Jenner is working with several former aides to Trump.

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