SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Even by California’s quirky political standards, the spectacle of a 1,000-pound Kodiak bear, a multimillionaire businessperson and a 71-year-old reality TV star wrestling for public attention Tuesday was one for the books.
It was also a hint of the bizarre political tricks and media-hungry pitches that Republicans will dangle in front of California voters as they campaign in the gubernatorial recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The starting gun sounded last week when California’s chief elections official declared that backers had secured the 1.5 million valid signatures to proceed. Candidates are increasingly sparring for donors, attention and all-important earned media to stay relevant for the next several months until an election likely to take place in November.
On Tuesday alone, two Republican gubernatorial candidates — wealthy businessperson John Cox and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner — did their best to set social media afire with new ads and brash new pitches.
While Jenner's 3-minute launch video drew national attention, the California political class was fixated on a live Kodiak bear named Tag, who made his political debut roaming in a public Sacramento park behind Cox. Two years after being trampled in a historic landslide defeat by Newsom, Cox unveiled his rebooted campaign — retooled with new staffers, new ads and a new pitch.
Cox rebranded himself as the "beast" — to the point of changing his Twitter handle to @BeastJohnCox — and portrayed himself as Newsom's opposite in a "Beauty and the Beast" scenario. Cox repeatedly dismissed the governor as a “pretty boy” and said “the beauty” has failed his mission of governing.
“We’re going to need big, beastly changes to be made in this state," Cox said, referring to his own campaign.
Mere feet away from the press corps, Cox’s massive surrogate held reporters’ rapt attention as he downed dozens of Oreo cookies tossed his way in front of the candidate’s new campaign bus — wrapped with a massive portrait of Cox and the bear, with the slogan, “Meet the Beast.”
Cox also dropped $5 million of his own money into his campaign fund Tuesday — funds that will pay for statewide airing of a new ad pushing the “Beauty and the Beast” message.
The move had the intended effect of driving California political talk for two days after Jenner had sucked the oxygen from the Republican recall room over the past few weeks. Political strategists, lobbyists and legislative aides made bad jokes and expressed astonishment on social media.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, tweeted its anger: "It’s unfortunate and shameful that Tag the Kodiak bear has been exploited in this way … PETA urges anyone with an ounce of decency to keep wild animals out of their publicity stunts."
His strategy also befuddled several battle-scarred GOP advisers in California. “How many times do you get to formally announce that you’re running in one campaign?” tweeted GOP strategist Matt Shupe.
Still, recall backers celebrated the day's events for pumping up interest in a state where politics is often mixed with show business. “They are fostering a much needed policy debate on the future of California," said Tom Del Beccaro, chair of RescueCalifornia.org, the group backing the recall, and the former chair of the California Republican Party.
Hours earlier, before dawn in California, Jenner snared early East Coast interest with a 3-minute launch video that introduced herself as a “compassionate disruptor” in California politics. The soft-focus spot showed Jenner overlooking the state from a mountain top, relives some of her biggest newsmaking moments from the 1976 Olympics — and portrayed her as a doer.
“The only thing Gavin Newsom will disrupt is our economy and the livelihoods of innocent Californians," she offered in a message on her website. Jenner added an issues page Tuesday that sounded Republican notes, from vowing to veto any tax increase to eliminating regulations. She said she would reopen schools and businesses and blamed Gov. Gavin Newsom for putting "his special interest relationships and campaign cash above our children," an apparent reference to teachers unions.
Across town from Cox's press conference, Newsom scheduled a decidedly more sober event Tuesday — a press conference in which he accepted the endorsement of the California Professional Firefighters. Newsom repeatedly refused to directly respond to the day's Republican developments, saying he was focused on vaccine distribution in California.
“Now is not the time to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a recall effort that is nothing more than a partisan power grab," he said.
Administering the recall could cost elections officials a cumulative $400 million if pandemic restrictions persist, Sutter County Registrar Donna Johnston told the Legislature on Tuesday. California has already extended a requirement that all active voters be mailed ballots, which adds postage costs, and coronavirus-related mandates like personal protective equipment and large spaces could push the price up more.
“It’s going to be up to each county board of supervisors to decide how to fund this election. Some hard decisions may have to be made,” Johnston said, noting the Legislature could “help to relieve the cost to our counties.” California could also potentially use federal funds to defray the cost, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
The Secretary of State’s office declined to provide a cost estimate because the recall has not formally been certified yet. But Newsom and other Democrats have assailed the hit to taxpayers as they seek to portray the recall as a costly distraction.
There will be no respite Wednesday. Jenner is scheduled to sit down with Fox News host Sean Hannity Wednesday in Malibu with supporters expected in the audience — but only Hannity will ask the questions, a Fox News spokesperson said Monday night.
Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.
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