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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As he lobs baseless fraud claims, losing GOP governor candidate Loren Culp’s own campaign spending draws scrutiny

Loren Culp, then-Republic’s police chief, is cheered on by supporters during a gubernatorial rally Oct. 2 in Liberty Lake. Culp filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission to run in next year’s primary in Washington’s 4th District.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Brunner Seattle Times

More than a month since losing to Gov. Jay Inslee, Republican Loren Culp has continued to raise money with unsubstantiated claims of vote fraud.

His efforts to sow doubt about an election he lost by more than a half-million votes have failed to draw support from the state GOP and have been rejected by Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

Culp, taking a page from President Donald Trump’s playbook, has told supporters he’ll “never concede.” He filed a lawsuit against Wyman two weeks ago in King County Superior Court, seeking an audit of ballots and voting machines in five counties.

Prominent Republicans, though, have grown weary of Culp’s postelection challenges, which he has used to raise at least $55,000 since Election Day.

Meanwhile, Culp’s own campaign spending has raised questions among some veteran GOP consultants and political insiders.

His campaign manager, Chris Gergen, took a big chunk. The campaign made large, unexplained payments to a Marysville data firm while spending a relatively meager sum on traditional voter contact.

Additionally, Culp disclosed in a Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) filing recently that he’d paid himself more than $33,000 for lost wages and an additional $15,000 for mileage reimbursement.

State law allows candidates to tap campaign funds to recoup expenses and lost income. (Culp had been on leave for months from his job as the sole police officer in Republic, Ferry County – a position he lost last month.)

But few take advantage of the provision; Culp’s payment to himself appears to be the largest-ever for a candidate in Washington state, according to a review of PDC data.

Culp’s latest PDC filing also shows his campaign paid $26,000 to Jim Miller, a retired Boeing manager from Eastern Washington, who has for years been disseminating unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about vote-counting machines and software.

Miller said in a Facebook message that he used the money to buy data to prove his theories about vote-tabulation machines riddled with “hidden and secret software” and “silicon circuits” used “to steal elections.”

Culp did not respond to requests for comment. In recent Facebook videos to supporters, he has promoted his ongoing efforts to prove widespread vote fraud. “I am not a quitter. I am a fighter, and I am fighting for you,” he said in one video.

There has been no allegation that his spending was illegal. The PDC gave him a written warning earlier this year after his campaign spent $10,230 buying his 2019 book, “American Cop.” He faces no current PDC complaints.

Questions about raising and spending cash

Still, some Republicans say the way Culp spent donor money raises red flags.

“We had concerns early on about the Culp campaign, and based on what’s happened after the election they are well-founded,” said former state Rep. Cary Condotta of East Wenatchee, a conservative who co-chaired the state House GOP’s campaign committee for a dozen years, referring to Culp’s unusual spending and attacks on Republican leaders.

Former State Republican Party chairman and conservative talk-radio host Kirby Wilbur, said: “If you examine how the Culp campaign was run, a lot of traditional things weren’t done that money typically goes toward … where was the money spent?”

Gergen, who owns the consulting firm Dark Horse Political, would not comment on the Culp campaign’s spending. “The strategies employed by DH Political are proprietary and it is our policy to not divulge client information,” he wrote in an email.

Culp spent roughly a fifth of the more than $3.3 million he raised on traditional campaign advertising, such as TV and radio, an analysis of his campaign’s PDC filings shows.

That’s a far smaller percentage than campaigns typically aim to spend on such outreach, according to GOP operatives and party insiders.

Andrew Bell, a political consultant who has worked for Republicans including Wyman and Dino Rossi, said any statewide campaign raising millions of dollars should reserve 70% or more of its budget for ads, including TV, radio and mailers.

Majority Strategies, a top Republican consulting firm based in Florida, recommends candidates spend “no less” than 75% on such advertising.

Meanwhile, Gergen and his firm were paid $330,000 for consulting and expenses – about 10% of the Culp campaign’s total outlays. Gergen received a $25,000 “win bonus” after the August primary.

Gergen, a newcomer to Washington politics, has with Culp aggressively attacked Republican leaders who have criticized the Culp campaign. In one online rant last month, he vowed to run state House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm out of politics.

A Navy veteran and former financial adviser, Gergen ran unsuccessfully for the Oregon Legislature in 2014 and worked on the Trump campaign in that state in 2016. He started a Florida-based pro-Trump super PAC in 2018, but it raised only $140.

Culp was introduced to Gergen through a mutual connection: the guitarist and gun-rights activist Ted Nugent, who had praised Culp’s refusal to enforce Initiative 1639, a voter-approved gun-control ballot measure passed in 2018.

The cost of ‘data’

One of the Culp campaign’s biggest chunks of spending went to a firm called Salience Data, which has never been hired by any other candidate or campaign.

Salience was paid $423,000, spread out over 13 payments between August and October. The spending was listed as for “data consulting” with the exception of $13,000 for sending text messages.

The Washington Observer, a politics and money newsletter by journalist and former public-affairs consultant Paul Queary, flagged the unusual Salience payments and other anomalies last month, suggesting the Culp campaign looked like “a long con.”

Salience co-owner Anton Stetner, a licensed real estate broker in Marysville, would not say what the money went toward when reached by phone by The Seattle Times.

“At the end of the day we are a big data marketing strategy company,” Stetner said. He declined to say more, citing a nondisclosure agreement and told a reporter “I wish you the best, sir.”

State business records show Salience is owned by 421 Holdings, a company in turn owned by Stetner and Barry Hurd, a digital marketing strategist who did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Both Stetner and Hurd have had email addresses registered to Gergen’s political consulting firm, leading some GOP insiders to question their financial ties.

Gergen declined to shed light, saying in an email “Culp for Governor and Dark Horse Political have no comment regarding specific payments, specific work, or specific relationships.”

The Salience outlays left even one Culp campaign vendor, Jesse Greening, wondering what was going on.

In a since-deleted Facebook post, Greening asked how Culp could spend $400,000 on data “but not send out a single mailer or canvass at all for that matter.”

Dave McMullan, chair of the Pierce County Republican Party, replied: “Mailers cost money. Data consulting can make money.” He speculated the money may have paid for social media “bots” spreading pro-Culp messages.

Greening himself was paid $125,000 in October to print Culp signs, car magnets and donation envelopes, via a company called Patriot Printing LLC, which was set up in August.

In an interview, Greening, who was a paid organizer this year for the Snohomish County Republicans, said he didn’t witness anything “shady” in his own dealings with the Culp campaign. But he found the big data expenditures odd, saying “That just blows my mind.”

Eyman’s 12-year-old daughter was paid $900

While Culp’s campaign did buy TV and radio ads, he emphasized in-person rallies with live music and food stands. He also built a big online following with regular Facebook videos, and printed thousands of yard signs, T-shirts and other swag.

Initiative promoter Tim Eyman, who lost to Culp in the August primary, campaigned for him in the general election, speaking at many of the fall rallies.

Eyman says he did so as a volunteer, though he raised money at the events for his legal defense against a long-running lawsuit by the state Attorney General’s Office, accusing him of illegally laundering political donations and accepting kickbacks.

Gergen said in an email he was “not aware of payments made to Mr. Eyman directly.” He noted the campaign paid Eyman’s 12-year-old daughter, who spoke with him at rallies, $900 over three months for “campaign related work.”

No one is suggesting that any of Culp’s financial decision-making snatched victory from Republicans, who face strong headwinds in statewide races.

Democrats have won every gubernatorial contest (10 consecutive) since 1984. Culp was a first-time candidate who advanced to the general election by placing second in the August primary, with 17% of the vote. He trailed Inslee all year in polls, and was outspent by more than 2-to-1.

Caleb Heimlich, the state Republican Party chairman, credited Culp for running “an excellent grassroots campaign” that excited conservatives, especially in red-leaning rural areas.

But Heimlich said the campaign was “under-resourced” and didn’t spend enough on voter contact, including political ads, to persuade independent-minded Puget Sound area voters.

“We didn’t lose because of voter fraud,” he said.