By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press
Last year, it looked like Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s political career would end with a long-shot presidential bid that ended a year before he finished out his second term.
But Inslee decided to seek a rare third term, taking Democrats who were lining up to take his place by surprise. He faces Republican Loren Culp, police chief of the small town of Republic, in the Nov. 3 election.
Governors in Washington aren’t subject to term limits, though most haven’t served more than two terms. The last three-term governor in Washington was Republican Gov. Dan Evans, who served from 1965 until 1977.
Ballots have been sent to the state’s more than 4.7 million voters, and elections officials are expecting record turnout.
Since Inslee, 69, announced his decision last summer, he’s been confronted with a series of challenges: the first known U.S. coronavirus case announced in January; a state economy rocked by the ensuing pandemic; frequent skirmishes between police and protesters during months of demonstrations against police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis; and wildfires that affected both Eastern and Western Washington. And Boeing announced it will consolidate production of its two-aisle 787 jetliner in South Carolina and shut down the original assembly line for the plane in Everett.
Inslee said everything the state has confronted this year has “increased the stakes of this election.” He says the decisions he has made related to coronavirus restrictions and mask mandates has saved lives, and said that if given a third term, efforts to tamp down the pandemic will continue, along with efforts he said the state still must make to address areas ranging from homelessness and economic insecurity to reforming the mental health system.
“I believe we need to be on a two-track system, and we need to do both at the same time,” he said. “And we’re fully capable of doing that.”
To do that, he said, requires someone who has experience, and he said Culp — who ran a construction business for 20 years before going into law enforcement 10 years ago — is not up to the job of running the state.
Culp, who got national attention after saying he wouldn’t enforce gun regulations approved by voters in a 2018 ballot measure initiative, said his outsider approach is a benefit, and voters are frustrated with the ongoing coronavirus restrictions, which vary depending on which economic reopening phase a county is in.
“People are getting sick and tired of government interfering in their lives,” he said.
Culp, 59, said his focus would be on getting businesses back open, as well as reducing regulations on them. He also would like to slow down state spending that he says has gotten too high under Democratic leadership.
Culp said he knows COVID-19 is serious and noted he wears a mask in businesses that require it, but he insisted that government’s role is to educate and let people make their own decisions based on “individual freedom and liberty.”
He argues that many businesses have been irreparably harmed by the initial closures of non-essential businesses and the ongoing restrictions and, if elected, he would use executive authority to immediately remove any coronavirus restrictions left in place in the state.
“It is not the governor’s role to trample on citizen rights,” he said. “We know how to protect ourselves. He’s not my health care professional, he’s not our nanny, he’s not our boss.”
Inslee said that Culp’s stance mirrors that of President Donald Trump, who recently contracted COVID-19 and who Inslee says “has endangered the lives of millions of Americans and who has downplayed this from day one.”
“My opponent has swallowed the Trump snake oil, and that is just too dangerous for the state of Washington,” he said.
Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the state Republican Party, knows the state’s long history of electing Democratic governors. But he points to the fact that Inslee garnered 50.1% in the primary in a field of 35 opponents. Culp came in second with more than 17%.
“Half of the people who were voting in August were choosing someone else,” he said. “Outside of King County, there’s a huge frustration with his leadership, his management.”
Inslee’s opponents have criticized the massive fraud that the state’s unemployment system was victim to earlier this year, coupled with long backlogs for those still awaiting benefits, as well as the coronavirus restrictions that that they argue have extended to the impact on the state’s economy.
Tina Podlodowski, head of the state Democratic Party, said that Inslee acted “swiftly and decisively” during the pandemic, in contrast calling Culp a “public health menace” because of his large, in-person rallies of supporters without masks.
Of Culp, Podlodowski said: “I find the information he’s putting out there to be very dangerous and I think voters in Washington state are very smart about this.”
Democrats have held the governor’s office since 1985, and independent pollster Stuart Elway pointed to polling that showed Inslee with a comfortable lead. Those same polls show President Donald Trump — who only got 38% of the vote in Washington in 2016 — expected to lose the state by an even larger margin. For Culp to overcome those odds, Elway said, “would be quite the lightning strike.”
Even though Washington voters have been known to ticket split on races before, Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University, said that they will be be making their gubernatorial choice in a year of heightened political polarization.
“It has been an ‘our team vs. your team’ kind of mentality,” he said. “There’s just a lot of intense partisanship in Washington, D.C., and it trickles down to the states as well.”