VENTURA, Calif. — YouTube star Kevin Paffrath sells the dream of becoming a wealthy real estate investor, offering lifetime access to his “$0 to Millionaire and Beyond” course for $915.
The 29-year-old political novice is now asking California voters to launch him on a similar trajectory.
Paffrath is the leading Democrat in Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election. But he has raised just $450,000, some of it from his own savings. He has no ground game to speak of, and his small campaign team operates out of his Ventura garage.
That he finds himself in the spotlight is largely the doing of the California Democratic Party. Party officials discouraged more established names from entering the race, a gamble that left the Democratic field up for grabs and some voters puzzled about how to answer the second question on the ballot: who should replace Gov. Gavin Newsom if he is recalled.
Paffrath, who has managed to bulldoze his way into public view with an antagonistic social media presence and a healthy dose of ego, now finds himself with a shot at snaring an outsize percentage of votes from Democrats reluctant to leave the second question on the ballot blank, as Newsom’s team and other leading Democrats have urged them to do. The outcome of the strategy: Democrats have had to put up with weeks of vexing antics from the the fast-talking internet star. And rather than increasing in the limelight, his YouTube follows have stagnated.
During his short campaign, Paffrath has threatened to sue CNN, picked a Twitter fight with comedian Stephen Colbert and antagonized Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). He’s also taken the unusual tactic of showing up at Newsom’s campaign events — suited up and ready for residual press attention — from which, he claims, he has been bounced more than once.
Paffrath pushes boundaries to grab attention, from his attempts at humor to eye-popping policy proposals that appear to be legally, logistically or politically impossible, like solving the state’s water problems by building a 1,300 mile pipeline to the Mississippi River. He joked last month that beating leading Republican candidate Larry Elder would constitute “Elder abuse”; a few days earlier, he published a conspiracy-laden tweet related to Newsom’s forthcoming decision about whether to grant parole to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, a post which was quickly taken down.
That combative style was on full display during his first debate appearance last month, where as the lone Democrat on stage, he practically shouted his ideas at the camera. That night, he made headlines for his Mississippi River idea. He also criticized former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s failed real estate deals in the city and called on his Republican opponents to drop out of the race.
“Since I am polling the best of the candidates on this debate stage,” he said, pointing to a widely criticized survey, “I would ask them to drop out of the race and endorse me, Kevin Paffrath, on the second part of the ballot.”
His performance clearly got under Faulconer’s skin. “It’s not the time for the on-the-job training, for YouTube, somebody that’s never actually had to get legislation across,” the former mayor retorted.
The early August SurveyUSA poll Paffrath was referencing — which found Paffrath led all candidates with 27 percent support — listed him as the only Democratic option alongside six Republicans. That methodology has been questioned by political observers who say he likely received support from some liberal voters based solely on his party affiliation.
A pair of more recent polls released by SurveyUSA and Change Research, in which at least five Democratic candidates were listed, found lower support for Paffrath. He polled at 6 percent in both surveys, trailing Elder’s 27 percent and running only slightly ahead of the other Democrats.
Paffrath, a self-described centrist, has been a registered Democrat since he was old enough to vote. He promotes higher pay for teachers and some criminal justice reforms. But much like the campaign tactic of calling the sitting Democratic governor “a selfish loser,” as he did last month, his platform includes proposals most California Democrats wouldn’t touch.
He wants to allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons and to eliminate taxes on the first $250,000 of income. He also says he’d use the National Guard to move all homeless people off the streets and into emergency shelters within 60 days, an idea that ignores political, practical and legal realities.
He also isn’t afraid to tap into media sources loathed by the left or latch onto their talking points about the deep blue state, its ballooning cost of living and its struggles with homelessness. The video announcing his candidacy features California-bashing clips from Fox News and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
Paffrath on his campaign website says he’s a fiscal conservative and social liberal who sees himself as “51/49 in terms of Democrat vs Republican.” He said his upbringing in Florida, where he spent much of his free time in high school shadowing local police officers as a volunteer, shaped his politics.
On his popular YouTube channel, where he has amassed 1.7 million followers, he speaks directly to viewers in a style reminiscent of a CNBC host. Sometimes in a suit coat, other times in a bomber jacket or a hoodie, he spends his days talking up the latest hot stock or brilliant real estate tip. Although his channel has gotten a political flavor since he declared his candidacy, it’s not unusual for him to post multiple videos and hour-long live streams a day with titles like “Top 5 Stocks to Buy NOW!“ and “I’M UPSET!! Leak Reveals Truth | Afghanistan’s Failure.”
Paffrath said he understands that some voters will dismiss his campaign as a marketing gimmick, but argues that running has been a financial drain on his business. The number of new subscribers on his “Meet Kevin” YouTube channel has stagnated in recent months after being on an upward trajectory since last May.
He said he plans to run again in 2022 regardless of the recall outcome.
“I could make a lot more money not running for governor,” he said during an interview last month at a park near his home. “I will lose money being in office, and I don't even want to take the governor's salary. I'm just trying to make California a better place for my kids.”
One of his YouTube followers-turned-political supporters is Jason Kramer, a 50-year-old attorney and registered Republican from Corona who donated $5,000 to the campaign in May.
Kramer said that he originally learned about Paffrath after discovering his YouTube channel and purchasing some of his online courses — which range in price from $628 to $1,627 — on topics like real estate investing. He said many of the candidate’s proposals resonated with him, even if they sounded far-fetched.
“He is by far the hardest working individual I know of and really a very transparent individual, and that would be great to bring into politics,” Kramer said.
YouTube fans aside, Paffrath doesn’t have the name recognition of an Elder, who’s spent decades as a conservative radio fixture in Southern California, or of reality star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner — who, despite strong name ID, is struggling to get traction in the race.
Paffrath also failed to submit a candidate statement to the California Secretary of State, which means he isn’t listed in voter guides.
His long-shot bid for governor is looking less likely than ever, with recent polling showing voters rejecting the recall. The late-stage “Hail Mary” endorsement he was hoping to win from the Democratic Party as a backup option had yet to materialize six days before the election, and after millions of voters had already turned in their ballots.
Paffrath is asking voters to jumpstart his political career by putting him in charge of a state with 40 million people, the world’s fifth-largest economy and a host of entrenched and often overlapping crises, from wildfires to homelessness. He’s never held public office, or even tried, but he’s not interested in working his way to the top.
“In order to effect big change you need a strong leader,” he said. “And that's why I believe for my visions for fixing California, governor is the only place you can be.”
Debra Kahn contributed to this report.
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