Washington’s GOP gubernatorial candidates are hoping to make this November’s election a referendum on Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 response. But it’s yet to be seen if they can convince voters in a historically blue state to cross the aisle.
It’s still early in the race — with candidate filings closing on May 15 — but there are already a few standouts among the Republican ranks.
They include former Bothell mayor Joshua Freed, who kicked off his campaign with about $500,000 in self-funding; Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic who rose to fame after refusing to enforce I-1639 gun laws; state Sen. Phil Fortunato, who represents southeast King County; and serial initiative pusher Tim Eyman.
It’s an interesting field of candidates for Cornell Clayton, director of Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.
Generally, the GOP fields candidates with name recognition and statewide experience (think Dino Rossi or Rob McKenna). But this November could see a second blue wave, similar to 2018, when Democrats seized the the state Legislature. Many potential candidates likely decided to sit this year out, he said.
“I suspect most people think that’s coming again in 2020, that Trump’s going to be very weak at the top of the ticket, and it’s strong headwinds for Republican candidates,” Clayton said.
It will be a tough run for any Republican in the state, and it could only get harder if the national economic fallout from COVID-19 continues. But that fallout could also hurt Inslee, depending on how he handles it.
As of late April, 75 percent of Washingtonians surveyed in a Crosscut/Elway poll supported Inslee’s response. Another poll noted a rift in the Republican party, with a sizable minority of GOP voters supporting social distancing measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. This is in contrast with the majority Republican view that Inslee has gone too far, and has hamstrung the economy unnecessarily.
However, the poll noted no such discord among Democratic voters. If that trend holds, it could mean a weaker and more divided Republican party will be squaring off against a unified Democratic one. But that too could change, Clayton said.
“If the lockdown were to continue without warrant, if cases didn’t re-emerge and the lockdown continued, that could change,” Clayton said.
Mark Smith, a professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Politicial Science, was thinking along the same lines. While there’s support for Inslee now, it’s a long way until the November general election.
“As of right now, he looks stronger than he did a few months ago, but there’s no guarantee that will persist,” Smith said.
It’s a shot that Republicans are hoping will pay off. Alex Hays is a Tacoma-based GOP political consultant who views this year’s election as an opportunity for the party. The way he sees it, people across the state are starting to feel that Inslee’s COVID-19 response is unfair, unreasonable and creating pain.
Washington has elected Democratic governors since 1985, when Republican John Spellman left office. But Hays thinks grassroots conservatives are mobilized and engaged in the wake of Inslee’s stay-at-home orders.
“I think that this election, there will be relatively little attention paid toward anything other than COVID-19,” Hays said.
The long-standing divide between Puget Sound counties and the rest of the state could galvanize Republican voters. He said it’s yet to be seen if that could outweigh the tendency of voters to stick with an incumbent during times of crisis.
The two candidates Hays sees as most likely to grab the nomination during the primary race are Freed and Eyman, for different reasons. They’re the candidates that Clayton also predicts have the best chances.
Eyman is a populist with name recognition who has become well known in the state over the last two decades with relentless initiative pushing. Most recently, he drafted I-976, which mandated $30 car tabs. The initiative passed, but was challenged, and the case is now headed to the state Supreme Court.
For his part, Eyman is hoping voters will elect him to usher in those $30 car tabs, and to slash and prevent taxes ranging from proposed fees on carbon to income taxes and pay-per-mile gas tax replacements.
“I’m committed to making sure that we clean up the mess not by taxing people,” Eyman said.
Hays said Freed is doing everything he can to win over the GOP establishment and its voters. For Freed to win the primary, and to beat Inslee, he’ll need to convince middle-of-the-road voters, who may be turned off by Trump, to vote for him down-ticket.
“You need them to say there’s a difference here, it’s worth making a change, it’s worth making a ticket splitter,” Hays said.
But the Republican candidates seem more in doing the opposite. During a virtual debate on May 5, hosted by the Eastside Republican Club, all four candidates seemed to enthusiastically raise their hands when asked if they supported Trump.
Trump’s disapproval rating in Washington state has held at around 60% since 2017, according to Morning Consult.
During the same debate, Freed said he was planning on hanging the response to the COVID-19 pandemic around Inslee’s neck. Freed filed, then withdrew, a lawsuit against the state over small Bible study sessions earlier this month.
It’s also unclear whether enough voters will come out if the GOP candidates are able to sway them. Clayton expects there will be much energy around the election coming from the center, left and far right, while moderate right turnout may be depressed.
“In these kinds of polarized times, it takes an awful lot for a voter to vote cross-partisan, but they’re the ones you would expect maybe to just not show up,” he said.
The Democratic establishment is feeling confident too. Washington State Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski said she supports Inslee’s measures in response to the pandemic as well as Inslee’s lack of campaigning during the pandemic.
“I think he’s doing exactly what he should be doing,” she said.
She sees weaknesses in both top Republican candidates. Eyman will likely have to address past campaign finance law violations and other legal issues, she said, while Freed’s time on the Bothell City Council and as mayor saw controversy surrounding the purchase of a portion of the Wayne Golf Course.
So far, Freed is the most well-funded candidate, and has spent more than $433,000 of the $580,000 his campaign has raised. This sum includes a hefty $500,000 loan Freed cut himself to kick-start his campaign last year, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.
Culp has raised the second most, at nearly $295,000, followed by Eyman with some $183,000. Fortunato has raised some $152,000.
During the May 5 debate, Culp said he had twice as many individual donors as the other candidates, and has 9,000 signs across the state that are given to donors. Fortunato leaned into his experience as the only top candidate with state-level experience in the Legislature.
It’s still early in the race. And despite Washington reliably voting in Democratic governors for decades and high levels of disapproval of the Trump administration, in a post-2016 election world, politics are anything but predictable.
Candidates who filed for Washington state governor (w/ party preference)
Alex Tsimerman, Stand Up America
Phil Fortunato, Republican
Ryan Ryals, unaffiliated
Leon Aaron Lawson, Trump Republican
Henry Clay Dennison, Socialist Workers
Tim Eyman, Republican
Liz Hallock, Green Party
Goodspaceguy, Trump Republican
Omari Tahir Garrett, Democratic
Don Rivers, Democratic
Martin ‘Iceman’ Wheeler, Republican
Raul Garcia, Republican
Tyler Grow, Republican
Winston Wilkes, Propertarianist
Brian Weed, no party preference
Thor Amundson, Independent
Gene Hart, Democratic
William (Bill) Miller, American Patriot
Matthew Murray, Republican
Dylan Nails, Independent
Cameron Vessey, no party preference
David Blomstrom, Fifth Republic
Antoin Sakharov, Trump Republican
Craig Campbell, no party preference
Nate Herzog, Republican
Cregan Newhouse, no party preference
Ian Gonzales, Republican
Cairo D’Almeida, Democratic
Elaine Gonzales, Independent
Jay Inslee, Democratic
Joshua Freed, Republican
David Voltz, Cascadia Labour
Joshua Wolf, New Liberty
Loren Culp, Republican
Richard Carpenter, Republican
Bill Hirt, Republican