One of Washington’s most experienced politicians will square off against a first-time candidate for governor in the November general election.
Loren Culp, the Republic police chief thrust into the political spotlight by his stance against a gun control measure approved by voters, outdistanced a pack of 35 challengers for the right to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
Inslee, a former legislator, congressman and the two-term governor, finished the election night count with nearly twice as many votes as Culp. But in the state’s top two primary, Culp claimed the second spot with more than twice as many votes as the next highest challenger, former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed.
The primary for governor had the longest list of candidates in state history, with 35 challengers trying to unseat Inslee. The list included 15 Republicans of some variation – three listed their party preference as “Trump Republican” and one as what may be the GOP polar opposite, “Pre2016 Republican” – but only five of those challengers mounted credible campaigns and raised the kind of money that would make them viable in a statewide race.
Culp was propelled into the national spotlight in 2018 when he said he would not enforce a new state initiative approved by voters that put new restrictions on the sale of semi-automatic firearms. He got the endorsement of gun-rights groups and campaigned heavily in rural and suburban areas on both sides of the Cascades.
Although he was an unknown before that, he easily bested Tim Eyman, the longtime initiative sponsor, who tried unsuccessfully to move to electoral politics. Eyman, who made a “victory speech” on Facebook Live a few minutes before vote totals started coming in, was in fourth place in Tuesday night’s count.
Freed, the former Bothell mayor who gained attention in the suburban Puget Sound areas by sponsoring an initiative to block the siting of heroin injection facilities, finished second to Inslee in King County, although with only 6.5% of the vote.
Also trailing in the pack of Republican hopefuls were state Sen. Phil Fortunato of Auburn and Raul Garcia, a Yakima emergency room physician and medical clinic operator.
Inslee, 69, is attempting to be only the second governor in state history to be elected to three consecutive terms. The first was Republican Dan Evans, who won his third term in 1972.
His initial campaigning was delayed last year by a brief and ultimately unsuccessful run for president. His gubernatorial campaign has been sidetracked significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced tough choices on Inslee as governor.
Shortly after the Legislature adjourned, he cut some $235 million out of the state’s supplemental budget to prepare for expected drops in tax revenue from a pandemic-driven slowdown. Despite the urging of Republican legislators and criticism from some of his campaign opponents, he has resisted calls for a special legislative session, saying lawmakers have no clear plan to address the budget shortfall and the state has sufficient reserves to get it through until January when the regular session starts.
He issued a series of emergency proclamations, including a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that divided jobs into essential and nonessential, requiring businesses that provide the latter to close.
In the early months of the pandemic, the hardest hit counties were in the Puget Sound’s urban core, and more rural counties pushed to reopen their economies.
In May, Inslee announced a phased restart of the economy, with four steps to slowly reopen businesses. In the middle of the restart, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths began to climb, and all counties have remained in the phase they were in when he announced a “pause” in the restart in early July.
All of Inslee’s major Republican challengers criticized the breadth of his restrictions and backed faster reopenings for parts of the state not facing high numbers of COVID-19 cases.