Gov. Jay Inslee coasted to an easy first-place finish in the Aug. 4 primary Tuesday, with small-town police Chief Loren Culp running a distant second, but well ahead of the other Republican challengers.
In Tuesday’s count of votes, Inslee took 52% to lead the 36-candidate primary field. Culp received about 17%, with initiative sponsor Tim Eyman and former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed at about 7% each.
Yakima physician Raul Garcia took 5% and state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn had about 4%.
Hundreds of thousands more ballots remain to be counted in the coming days. The top two vote recipients will face off in the Nov. 3 general election.
The primary vote followed an unpredictable election season upended by COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings and face-to-face contact that normally play a big role in campaigns — though most of the top Republican gubernatorial candidates proudly flouted social distancing and mask-wearing rules.
Inslee, who launched his third-term bid after an unsuccessful, climate-change focused run for the Democratic presidential nomination, is widely favored to win reelection. Washington has not elected a Republican governor since John Spellman in 1980.
Inslee’s election-night vote share was up from his primary performance four years ago, when he received 49% of the vote in an 11-candidate field. He was running at 70% support in Tuesday’s vote count in King County.
In a statement on the results, Inslee thanked voters and pointed to “bold, progressive” policies passed during his time as governor, and said at such a pivotal time, “Washington state needs the opposite of “Trump-style chaos.”
Culp, in a phone interview from his “Insubordinate Victory” election-night rally in Leavenworth, said many voters, including Democrats, are fed up with Inslee’s executive orders restricting businesses and requiring mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They are ready for individual freedom and liberty being returned to this state, where citizens have the choice on what they want to do in their personal lives and business, and not have it dictated to them,” he said.
Republicans argue Inslee is vulnerable as more Washingtonians grow weary of the COVID-19 shutdowns and surging joblessness. They have also pointed to scenes of violence at some Seattle protests and to the state’s Employment Security Department, which lost $576 million to a sophisticated unemployment fraud scheme.
State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich said Inslee’s 52% vote share “shows that after 8 years he is still not that popular with the voters of Washington State.”
But if Culp’s lead holds, it will put a solidly pro-Donald Trump Republican at the top of the GOP ticket in a state where Trump received just 38% of the vote four years ago, and where recent polls show him less popular now.
“If it’s Trump and Culp on the ticket in Washington state I can’t imagine that is going to bode well for Republicans,” said state Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski.
Culp, the police chief of Republic, a town of about 1,100 in Ferry County, ran a campaign vowing noncompliance with Inslee’s executive orders on mask-wearing and large gatherings, contending they were unconstitutional infringements on liberty.
A first-time candidate, Culp rose from anonymity to prominence among conservatives after publicly declaring he would not enforce Initiative 1639, the 2018 voter-approved initiative that placed new restrictions on gun-buying and storage.
His primary campaign, which raised more than $1.2 million on the strength of many small-dollar donations, spent little on traditional advertising, relying instead on crowded rallies with country music bands, 12,000 yard signs and an enthusiastic following on social media, where his live video streams consistently draw big audiences.
Eyman, the longtime anti-tax initiative sponsor, had started the primary race with widespread name recognition, but also came with high negatives among Democrats. Some prominent Republican leaders feared his presence at the top of the ticket with President Donald Trump would spell disaster for GOP candidates down the ballot.
In an interview this week, Eyman said with his usual braggadocio that he would be declaring victory in a speech at his election-night gathering in Kenmore — prior to the votes being counted.
Still, he acknowledged uncertainty in the election season marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s the weirdest election cycle I have ever been involved with in 22 years,” he said.
Freed, the former Bothell mayor and real estate developer, raised $1.6 million, pouring $700,000 of his own money into his campaign. Like Eyman and Culp, he had railed against Inslee’s executive orders, arguing they overstepped the proper authority of the governor’s office.
Freed contended he was the only candidate who could beat Inslee. He had pledged to not take a salary as governor and said “running the state is like running a Fortune 100 company.”
Garcia, a Yakima doctor running his first campaign, had surged in fundraising and support late in the primary race – raising more than $400,000 in four weeks — as some GOP leaders looked for a fresh face who could pull in swing voters.
While deeply critical of Inslee’s shutdowns of businesses and mask mandates, Garcia positioned himself as a comparative moderate in the GOP field and landed endorsements from former Gov. Dan Evans and former Attorney General Rob McKenna.
Fortunato had played up his experience as the only currently elected official among the GOP candidates. But his campaign lagged in fundraising, pulling in about $255,000, and in momentum compared with the top of the field.
With no serious Democratic rivals, Inslee stayed out of the primary fray and has focused his time on reducing the spread of COVID-19 and reopening the economy with a cautious, phased approach.
Asked why voters should grant him a third term, Inslee, the former congressman elected governor in 2012, points first to his handling of the pandemic.
“We know that leadership, strong leadership in this turbulent times is more important than ever,” he said in an interview Monday.
While Washington was the first state hit by the deadly outbreak, the state now ranks among the lowest in the rate of confirmed infections as a percentage of population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While there is speculation Inslee could be offered a cabinet position, such as EPA director or Interior Secretary, if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the presidency, the governor dismissed the possibility.
“No,” Inslee said when asked whether he would consider such a job offer.