For the better part of a year, Republican gubernatorial candidates have been raising money, holding rallies and wrangling support for the chance to face off against Gov. Jay Inslee in November.
The roster of top GOP contenders has remained fairly stable, including initiative promoter Tim Eyman, former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed, state Sen. Phil Fortunato, and Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic, Ferry County.
But lately some notable Republican leaders have taken a pass on that entire field. Instead, they’re backing a newcomer, Raul Garcia, a Yakima doctor who is attracting a burst of endorsements as the Aug. 4 primary approaches. Ballots for the primary will be mailed to voters this week.
Garcia, who filed for office without fanfare in mid-May, has been endorsed over the past few weeks by moderate Republican stalwarts, including former Attorney General Rob McKenna, former Gov. Dan Evans and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, as well as more conservative figures such as Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and state Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Backers praise Garcia as a fresh face with an impressive résumé. He has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response as director of emergency medicine at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco, and owns a medical clinic in Yakima.
But the boomlet of support also reflects concern — if not outright panic — among some Republicans over the prospect of a ticket led by President Donald Trump and Eyman this fall.
Former Secretary of State Sam Reed, who is chairing Garcia’s campaign, said he worries about down-ballot damage to Republicans like Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who is seeking reelection.
“We know that Trump doesn’t work that well in the state of Washington, and we just can’t have a gubernatorial candidate that doesn’t either,” he said.
Schoesler said he’s met most of the other major GOP candidates. “None of them can draw the wide range of support that Raul can,” he said.
The Garcia surge may prove too little, too late, given the big head starts in organizing and fundraising by his rivals. It also could backfire, further splitting the Republican vote among lesser-known candidates and guaranteeing an Eyman versus Inslee matchup.
Garcia also has personal baggage. During a 2014 DUI arrest in King County, police recorded his blood-alcohol level at 0.240 on a Sunday morning — three times the legal limit. Convicted after a jury trial, he appealed and was eventually allowed to plead guilty to reckless driving, according to court records.
Garcia, whose DUI-defense attorney challenged the accuracy of the blood-alcohol testing, maintains he was not intoxicated but merely exhausted. “The end result was, I think, something I took responsibility for. I shouldn’t have been driving,” he said.
He also has apologized for a poor voting record — he last cast a ballot in 2012, despite what he says is a lifelong dream to hold public office.
Unlike his GOP rivals, who have made a show of defying Inslee’s executive orders on mask-wearing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Garcia said he wears a mask when he is in public.
Still, he argues Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order has been heavy-handed and gone on too long.
“This virus is out there, so we can’t remain on house arrest forever, waiting on a vaccine that isn’t going to be approved soon,” he said.
Garcia counts himself as “pro-choice” candidate on abortion laws, and says he supports gay marriage. He said he’s undecided on whether he will vote for Trump’s reelection.
Inslee, who spent much of 2019 running unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination, is seeking to become the first Washington governor elected to a third term since Evans in 1972. He faces no significant Democratic challengers.
Voters in the primary will have 36 gubernatorial candidates to choose from — five Democrats, 15 Republicans and 16 independent or minor-party candidates. The top two finishers, regardless of party, will advance to the Nov. 3 general election.
While Garcia is the new face, Eyman is easily the best-known Republican candidate, having marshaled 17 statewide initiative campaigns on the ballot since the 1990s, 11 of which have passed. His most recent, Initiative 976, was approved by voters in 2019. That measure seeks to lower the state’s vehicle registration fees and roll back Sound Transit taxes. The state Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a legal challenge to the initiative.
Eyman sees his campaign as an extension of his initiatives, which have focused for the most part on limiting state and local tax collections and government spending. While several of his measures were ruled unconstitutional after passage, such setbacks have rarely fazed Eyman, who makes his living with donations supporting a never-ending churn of new proposals.
“I have been in the snake pit for 22 years and have been really successful at it.
If I can accomplish this much as an activist, just imagine what I can do as governor,” he said.
But Eyman’s notoriety brings negatives for many voters, particularly in Seattle and King County.
He remains mired in a long-running lawsuit brought by State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who accuses Eyman of violating campaign finance laws to enrich himself through laundered political donations and kickbacks. Eyman denies wrongdoing, but has paid more than $300,000 in contempt penalties in the lawsuit, and filed for bankruptcy. A trial in the case is scheduled for Nov. 16.
One of his rivals, Fortunato, mocked Eyman in an interview, saying if elected “he’d be the first governor to have his wages garnished.”
Eyman, who calls the chair swipe a misunderstanding, doesn’t intend to spend much time defending his reputation, figuring most voters already have made up their minds about him.
He contends more voters will be offended by Inslee’s “stay-home” executive orders and mismanagement by the state Employment Security Department (ESD), which has struggled with a backlog of unemployment claims after paying out as much as $650 million to fraudsters, including a Nigeria-based cybercrime ring known as “Scattered Canary.”
Inslee has resisted calls to fire ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine, a former Microsoft executive and prominent political fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee who was appointed by the governor in 2018.
“Eyman took a $70 chair. Inslee sent a billion dollars to Nigeria,” Eyman said.
He has doubled down on controversy, relishing the attention when Democrats condemn his remarks as outrageous — such as a recent Facebook post comparing Inslee’s executive orders with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
After a furor erupted over the comparison, he sent out a fundraising email reiterating the claim: “Jay Inslee has his knee on the neck of millions of people,” he wrote.
Eyman has made it clear that rude and outrageous statements are part of his strategy. “Past candidates were nice and respectful of Jay Inslee — I will not be,” he wrote in one email to supporters.
Freed, the former Bothell mayor who owns a real estate development company, has raised the most money among the GOP candidates, at more than $1.4 million as of Friday, including more than $700,000 of his own money.
Launching his campaign last fall prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Freed had initially focused on the homelessness crisis and drug-related crime. He had led a 2018 initiative campaign in King County to ban government-funded safe-injection sites for drug users. The proposal was blocked from the ballot by court rulings.
Freed has since pivoted to Inslee’s executive orders, saying they are crushing personal liberties and the economy and dividing workers into categories of “essential” and “nonessential.” Like most of his Republican rivals, he has scorned wearing masks at campaign events or even when going to the grocery store.
“We have a governor who is acting like a king,” Freed said in an interview. He supports efforts to limit executive orders of the governor by requiring approval from legislative leaders every two weeks.
Aside from Inslee’s orders, masks are recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Washington State Department of Health and global health experts as one key to slow the transmission of the coronavirus.
While trying to appeal to the conservative, Trump-loving base of the Republican Party, Freed also points to his time as a Bothell mayor and councilman, saying he’s learned to work with people of varying political viewpoints, while helping to lead a revitalization of downtown with $450 million in private investment.
Freed served three terms on the Bothell City Council and was chosen as mayor by his colleagues in 2014. He generated controversy in that role when he bought part of a local golf course after the city declined a purchase option, and pursued a high-end private housing development. While he was cleared of ethics violations, Freed faced public backlash and declined to run for reelection in 2017.
At a June candidates forum, Freed was the only GOP candidate to express clear support for a national holiday celebrating Juneteenth, the June 19 remembrance of the end of slavery in the U.S.
In an interview, Freed called his rivals “tone deaf” on that subject and on protests against police violence, saying “people have felt persecution and discrimination.
“None of those guys would have the capability to win the general election,” he said. “You have to be able to sense what is going on in the culture today.”
A first-time candidate, Culp is seeking to make the leap to governor from his position as police chief in Republic, a north-central Washington town of about 1,100 people that boasts no traffic lights but has an official town philosopher.
Culp is not just the police chief, he’s currently the only police officer in the town. He’s taking vacation time to campaign, leaving Ferry County sheriff officers to fill in.
An Army veteran and former construction-business owner, Culp switched careers in 2010 at the age of 49, getting hired by Republic as a police officer, and advancing to police chief a few years ago.
The small town is an improbable political launchpad for statewide office. But Culp garnered national attention from conservatives and gun-rights advocates when he declared he would refuse to enforce Initiative 1639, the 2018 voter-approved gun-control measure that raised the age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, and created penalties for failing to safely store guns, among other restrictions.
Culp parlayed the attention into appearances on Fox News and wrote a short book, “American Cop,” which includes an introduction by Ted Nugent, the rock star known for his outspoken conservative views.
Culp’s campaign has taken off on social media, where his regular live video chats draw thousands of views, and he has raised more money than any candidate but Freed.
As he has with the state’s gun laws, Culp says he’s defying Inslee’s mask orders, and in an interview compared the governor to “a dictator like you’d expect in North Korea.” Like Freed, Culp supports taking away such emergency powers from the governor.
“The way Jay Inslee handled this was totally ridiculous,” he said, arguing the state should have only quarantined sick people as opposed to shutting down sectors of the economy.
As the only police officer running, Culp has expressed sorrow for the death of George Floyd, but denies that race necessarily played any role.
“Just because Mr. Floyd was black and the officer was white does not mean it was a racist thing,” he said.
Culp faces an ongoing civil lawsuit, filed in 2017, accusing him of botching a child sexual-abuse investigation and intimidating the victim. Records show Culp did not believe a 17-year-old girl’s claims of being molested for more than a decade by a male relative. After Benton County authorities took up the case, the man pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree child molestation.
Culp has said he doesn’t believe the guilty plea means the abuse occurred and has dismissed attention to the case as a plot by the media and political rivals.
Fortunato, the state senator from Auburn, sounds bemused at times by his competition, noting he is the only current Republican officeholder running for governor.
“This is really just turning into a clown race,” he said, noting the three dozen people on the ballot.
Fortunato concedes he has underperformed in the fundraising chase, in part because he was subject to the legal freeze on fundraising while the Legislature was in session.
But he said he’s the only candidate who understands how the Legislature works, and has a built-in base in the 31st District, which includes parts of Pierce and King counties.
Fortunato said he doesn’t understand the Republican leaders like Gorton and Evans who have decided to back Garcia.
“When you heard them talk, they speak of a time that does not exist any more,” he said. “They are still thinking of getting along with the other side. The problem is the Democrats play hardball and the Republicans play softball.”
Fortunato was elected to the state House in 2016 and to the state Senate a year later. He also served one term in the Legislature from 1999-2001.
When asked to name his greatest accomplishment, he pointed to an unsuccessful proposal he has pushed to shift the state motor-vehicle sales tax to the state roads budget, citing declining gas-tax revenues.
If elected governor, Fortunato says his first action would be to fire Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar, citing Millar’s comments that WSDOT can’t fix traffic congestion.
Rounding out the candidates who have been actively campaigning and appearing at forums is Anton Sakharov, a project manager at tech companies, who lists himself on the ballot as a member of the “Trump Republican” party and says he’s fighting to save the state from socialist policies. Sakharov has not shown significant strength in endorsements or fundraising.
Whichever Republican emerges from the primary to face Inslee will have daunting odds. Democrats have won every gubernatorial race since 1984, and national political analysts don’t see that record being broken this year.
“In a state that President Trump lost by 16 points four years ago — a margin that’s likely to increase given how badly he’s trailing Joe Biden nationally — this just isn’t a reasonable target for Republicans,” said Jessica Taylor, an editor with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.