Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Loren Culp doesn’t care about GOP unity. What will it mean if he’s the party’s nominee for Congress?

MOXEE, Washington – At a meeting in Moses Lake held by the Republican Women of Grant County last December, county GOP chairman Mike McKee asked a leading candidate for Congress what he would do to unify a “splintered and fractured” party.

Loren Culp, the best known of six Republicans vying to unseat incumbent GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside for crossing former President Donald Trump, didn’t pull any punches.

“Well, if there’s any die-hard Republicans in here, you might want to clutch your pearls,” Culp said, “because I don’t give a rat’s ass – sorry – about a party, as much as I do about the United States of America.”

If the GOP is fractured, Culp said, “It’s because there’s a bunch of damn RINOs in it,” using an acronym for “Republicans in name only” that hardline candidates have wielded with increasing frequency as they seek to purge the party of relative moderates like Newhouse.

As they square off in Tuesday’s primary, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, Newhouse and Culp represent dramatically different visions for the Republican Party.

The other GOP candidates in the race have blamed Newhouse for causing division in the party when he was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

State Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, former NASCAR driver Jerrod Sessler, Army veteran Benancio Garcia III and marketing entrepreneur Corey Gibson have all cited Newhouse’s impeachment vote as a reason they each entered the race. Jacek Kobiesa, an engineer from Pasco who was the last of seven Republicans to join the field, has expressed frustration with all politicians without taking aim at Newhouse specifically.

A lack of public polling in the race makes the outcome of the primary hard to predict, but Culp’s campaign has released internal polls showing him leading Newhouse and the rest of the eight-man field. With the sole Democrat in the race, Yakima businessman Doug White, potentially able to pick up enough votes to advance to November’s general election, Culp could become the standard-bearer for a GOP beset with rifts he’s not interested in mending.

Although Culp went on to say he has been a lifelong Republican and would support the party as long as he agrees with its platform, McKee said the county GOP leaders in the district – who rebuked Newhouse over his impeachment vote – agreed that an ability to unite the party was one of the most important traits in a candidate.

“Loren’s comment was unacceptable, in my opinion,” McKee said Saturday. “You can’t talk trash about the party and expect the party to support your campaign.”

In lieu of loyalty to a party, Culp says he is guided by a fundamentalist reading of the Constitution that leads him to believe any matters not explicitly addressed in the nation’s founding document should be left to the states. At a campaign stop in the Yakima suburb of Moxee on Friday, he said that means dismantling federal agencies including the Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management.

“Just like the Supreme Court just said on abortion, it’s not in the Constitution, it’s not a federal matter, so the 10th Amendment applies,” he said in an interview. “It’s pretty simple.”

That message resonates with his supporters, like Ted Cantrell, who drove into Moxee from his home outside of town to see Culp speak to a crowd of about two dozen voters at a restaurant.

“He wants to defend the Constitution,” Cantrell said of Culp. “He’s a constitutionalist.”

Cantrell, 60, said he supported Culp’s 2020 campaign for governor because of the former Republic police chief’s refusal to enforce a state gun law he believed violated the 2nd Amendment.

“A man’s got to have balls to go up against the state saying, ‘Screw you,’ ” said Cantrell, who added that he believed Culp lost the election to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee because of voter fraud, an allegation Culp has been unable to prove.

Dick Bethune, 70, who drove from Naches with his wife, Cheri, to see Culp speak Friday, said he wants a representative in Congress who stands against “all this inclusivity that they’re wanting to push.”

“The transgender, the open bathrooms for anyone, it just opens up the schools to a lot of problems and potential harm to the kids there,” said Cheri Bethune, 67. “It’s ridiculous that we’re even talking about this stuff right now. It’s so over-the-top bad.”

Like Cantrell, Brad and Holly Sharp of Moxee said they don’t believe Culp legitimately lost to Inslee in 2020 because they saw more campaign signs supporting Culp and nearly all of their friends and family voted for him. They blamed voting machines made by Smartmatic and Dominion Voting, two frequent targets of Trump’s voter fraud claims, for Inslee’s victory.

Culp told the crowd in Moxee his top priority in the House of Representatives would be impeaching President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for a litany of actions he believes amount to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” for which a commander in chief can be sacked by Congress.

But another cohort of Republicans in Central Washington’s 4th congressional district, which stretches between the borders with Oregon and British Columbia, think Culp would take the GOP in the wrong direction.

Amanda McKinney, a GOP Yakima County commissioner, said she backs Newhouse despite disagreeing with his vote to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. McKinney said she wants congressional Republicans to focus on constructive legislation that would persuade voters to give the party control of the White House in 2024.

“Picking someone to represent you is kind of like picking a spouse,” she said. “You’re never going to get someone who’s going to make decisions that you agree with all the time.”

Focusing on a symbolic impeachment process that would be virtually guaranteed to fail in the Senate, McKinney said, would mean missing an opportunity to pass legislation to address rising inflation and other urgent problems.

“I am very certain that if we have Republicans that are vying for more trials and more hearings,” she said, “what would happen is that in two short years from now, when the voters go back during a presidential election, they will deem that Congress, yet again, did not do their job. And they will vote for Democrats.”

Deanna Martinez, chair of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, a moderate GOP group, said she believes Newhouse’s decision to impeach Trump was driven by his own interpretation of the Constitution and the oath every member of Congress swears to uphold and defend it.

“When I look at the decision that Dan had to make,” Martinez said, “there was a lot on his shoulders, but ultimately he took an oath when we elected him, and I believe that’s really how he was able to make that decision.”

Since voting to impeach Trump – saying there was “no excuse” for the president’s actions leading up to and during the events of Jan. 6, 2021 – Newhouse has burnished his conservative credentials as chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of House Republicans representing rural communities. That role has made Newhouse one of the most prominent critics of the Biden administration’s policies on oil and gas drilling, environmental regulations and public lands.

Yet Culp and the other GOP candidates challenging Newhouse have sought to paint the incumbent as too moderate and willing to work with Democrats to pass legislation, including breaking with most Republicans to reform immigration policy for farmworkers and codify a right to same-sex marriage.

Newhouse’s supporters hope the six Republicans running to his right will split right-wing votes enough for him to advance through the primary along with White, a matchup that would favor Newhouse in a district where Democratic candidates have earned no more than a third of votes in a recent general election.

GOP political action committees have spent more than $1.5 million to support Newhouse and oppose Culp, according to Federal Election Commission filings, led by a group called Defending Main Street that has spent more in Washington’s 4th district than on any other race.

“I think there was this late rush to help Dan because they realized Culp’s poll numbers are better than they expected,” Martinez said.

McKee said he worries that if Culp advances to face White in the general election, it would invite national Democratic groups to spend millions of dollars to wrest control of the district from the GOP. While the Grant County Republican Party has not endorsed a candidate in the 4th district race, McKee leads a separate group called Restore Washington that has endorsed Klippert.

Mike Gonzalez of Pasco, a former TV journalist who now works in local government, said he supports Newhouse because the veteran congressman is “a gentleman” and “a statesman” who is “inclusive in his approach.”

“I think it’s really about the future of the Republican Party, in particular in this region,” Gonzalez said. “It’s gone really far right, and I do think there is a silent majority that’s somewhere in the middle.”