Gov. Jay Inslee has won election to a third term, easily defeating Republican challenger Loren Culp and handing Democrats their tenth straight win in gubernatorial races.
Inslee led with about 59% of the vote to Culp’s 40% in the vote count Tuesday. Hundreds of thousands of ballots remain to be counted in the coming days, but Inslee’s lead was insurmountable.
As in past elections, Inslee’s totals were buttressed by big margins in the Democratic stronghold of King County, home to nearly a third of the state’s voters, where he was taking 76% of the vote. He also had significant leads in Pierce and Snohomish counties.
“Great evening. I haven’t been this excited since I first operated a bulldozer,” Inslee said, speaking to reporters in Olympia. “This was a big decision. I believe it will bear great fruit for the state of Washington.”
Culp led in less populous counties, including throughout Central and Eastern Washington. Further vote counts will be released starting Wednesday.
Culp did not concede Tuesday, telling supporters at an election night rally that too many votes remain to be counted. “We are going to wait until those people have their voices heard,” he said.
He also claimed without evidence that there were “some irregularities” in the election, pointing to voter support for a statewide sexual-health-education measure, even though he hadn’t met anyone who supported it.
The race played out, in large part, as a referendum on Inslee’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Culp urged defiance of the governor’s emergency orders, which he portrayed as tyrannical. Inslee defended the measures as necessary to save lives and safely reopen the state.
“I didn’t just win this election tonight — science won,” Inslee said Tuesday night. He added the victory was proof voters back his agenda on the pandemic and other issues, including fighting climate change. “They voted to confront those challenges, to defeat those challenges,” he said.
Inslee also praised soaring voter-turnout numbers, calling Tuesday a “victory for democracy” because “unprecedented numbers of Washingtonians” voted. As of election night, turnout had reached 77%, compared with 65% four years ago.
Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the state Republican Party, acknowledged Culp’s loss, as well as those in other statewide contests, reflects the party’s increasing weakness in King County.
“Clearly we have got to do better,” Heimlich said in a call with reporters Tuesday night. “We just can’t be competitive statewide with that margin in King County.”
He said the unpopularity of President Donald Trump, who was taking 37% of the statewide vote, also was a weight on down-ballot Republicans.
Culp held what he advertised as a “Victory Rally” Tuesday night in Tenino, Thurston County, with live music, and a large crowd largely ignoring public-health orders on mask-wearing and social distancing.
Inslee, 69, a former congressman and state legislator who was elected governor in 2012, will be the first three-term governor of Washington since Republican Dan Evans won his third term in 1972.
A first-time candidate, Culp, 59, is police chief and sole police officer of the small town of Republic, Ferry County. He gained attention for his refusal to enforce a 2018 voter-approved initiative that raised the age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 and expanded background checks.
Inslee launched his reelection bid last summer after abandoning his failed campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Despite never inching above 1% in polls for the nomination, Inslee’s detailed climate plans won praise from other candidates, and he has been mentioned as a possible cabinet pick if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the White House. Inslee has insisted he’s not interested in such jobs.
The governor’s reelection campaign emphasized his COVID-19 actions. The first reported coronavirus-related deaths in the United States happened in Washington, as the virus swept through nursing homes and other vulnerable communities.
But as of this week, the state’s infection and death rates ranked among the lowest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve endured heartache and uncertainty. I know a lot has been asked of you. We are turning the tide,” Inslee said in his campaign’s upbeat TV ads.
Using emergency powers, Inslee restricted which businesses and workplaces could open in full or partially. In June, he ordered facial coverings to be worn in public to help slow the spread of the virus.
Culp downplayed the pandemic’s severity and held dozens of protest rallies flouting the governor’s edicts. If elected, he vowed to end such government mandates, allowing businesses and schools to fully reopen if they chose.
Powered by his incumbent status and leading all year in polls, Inslee built up a massive fundraising advantage, raising $8 million, including more than $2 million from the state Democratic Party. Culp raised about $3 million, relying largely on small-dollar individual donors. The state GOP gave him $160,000.
While Inslee’s win will reinforce the Democratic Party’s dominance in statewide races, Culp’s loss could spur second guessing among Republicans.
In other recent gubernatorial races, Republicans have rallied behind Seattle-area candidates with electoral experience, such as former Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, who sought to appeal to Puget Sound moderates.
Culp, by contrast, tossed red meat to the conservative Republican base, making little effort to shift his message after winning his primary-election campaign against several Republican rivals.
Even Culp’s election night whereabouts were a departure, as he eschewed the traditional state GOP headquarters of Bellevue and held his rally in Tenino, the Thurston County town with a population of about 1,800.
Heimlich said the GOP will overhaul its strategies going forward. “We will look at all options,” he said.
Seattle Times reporter Evan Bush contributed to this report.