By Jim Brunner
The Seattle Times
Gov. Jay Inslee has likely won election to a third term, defeating Republican challenger Loren Culp.
Inslee led with about 60% of the vote to Culp’s 40% as of 8:45 p.m. Tuesday. A few counties had not yet reported, and hundreds of thousands of ballots remain to be counted in the coming days.
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 sizable 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 in Central and Eastern Washington. Further vote counts will be released starting Wednesday.
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 and harmful to businesses. Inslee defended the measures as backed by science and necessary to save lives and safely reopen the state.
Inslee’s win seals the 10th consecutive victory for Democrats in Washington gubernatorial races. The last Republican governor, John Spellman, left office in 1985.
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.
At an earlier virtual gathering with state Republican leaders and candidates, Culp expressed confidence he’d win. “We’ve got this,” he said, in a video recorded for the event.
Republican leaders said they expected Democrats to perform well in Tuesday’s vote count, but they predicted GOP candidates like Culp would do better as more ballots are tallied later this week.
“Democrats voted very early. Republicans tend to vote late,” said state House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.
Inslee, 69, a former congressman and state legislator who was elected governor in 2012, would 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 management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first reported coronavirus-related deaths in the United States happened in Washington, as the virus swept through nursing homes and other vulnerable communities.
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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.
Those restrictions have drawn several lawsuits from small-business owners, Republican lawmakers and activists who argue the rules are unconstitutional. So far, courts have upheld Inslee’s authority.
Culp has consistently downplayed the pandemic’s severity and complained of “quarantine jail.” He held dozens of protest rallies flouting the governor’s mask and social distancing orders. If elected, he vowed he would end government mandates, allowing businesses and schools to fully reopen if they chose.
“He’s locking down law-abiding citizens, shutting down our businesses, shutting our schools, shutting down our incomes, but then turning around and allowing large gatherings in these so-called peaceful protests, where people died,” Culp said in a recent live video chat with supporters.
Culp also pounced on state management issues, such as the state’s Employment Security Department’s struggles to pay legitimate unemployment-benefit claims after foreign scammers made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims.
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.