Last May, opponents of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay home order staged a “Hazardous Liberty” rally on the campus of the Washington Capitol. Guns outnumbered masks as speaker after speaker – mostly Republican officeholders and candidates – decried Inslee’s response to the pandemic as monarchical and an assault on individual freedom.
The sign–and-flag-waving crowd cheered the speakers as they lambasted Inslee. But one speaker in particular seemed to have attained a kind of celebrity status among many in the crowd.
“I think you know who’s coming, doncha,” boomed the emcee. “No introduction needed: Sheriff Loren Culp.”
As Culp, who’s a police chief, not a sheriff, took the mic, two supporters hoisted a giant “Loren Culp For Governor” sign behind him.
“How’s all the insubordinates doing today?” Culp began.
“Insubordinates” is what Culp proudly calls his supporters. It’s a dig at Inslee who in a national TV interview in April accused President Trump of inciting insubordination.
“Jay Inslee doesn’t realize that an elected public servant is subordinate to ‘We the People,’” Culp shouted to applause and cheers.
Back in May, Culp was one of three dozen candidates running for Washington governor. A first-time candidate, he lacked the statewide name recognition of Tim Eyman, the anti-tax initiative promoter who was also running. Nor did Culp hail from vote-rich Puget Sound like former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed. But the police chief of Republic, population 1,100, in the northeast corner of the state seemed to have something the other candidates didn’t – a fired-up base of support.
“We want Culp, we want Culp,” the crowd chanted after he wrapped up his speech that day.
Among those cheering Culp was Sabrina Brown, a laid-off bartender from Washougal in southwest Washington.
“He’s a regular old guy, standing for our freedom,” Brown said when asked why she supported Culp.
Three months later, in the August top-two primary, Culp’s energized supporters carried him to a second place finish behind Inslee with 17 percent of the vote.
“The Republican base is passionate about this guy in a way they were never passionate about Bill Bryant or Rob McKenna,” said Chris Vance, a former chair of the Washington State Republican Party.
Bryant, a former Port of Seattle commissioner, and McKenna, a former Washington attorney general, were the previous two Republican candidates for governor. Both lost to Inslee.
Vance, who left the Republican Party in 2017 and now describes himself as an independent, is a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project – a political action committee working to defeat President Trump.
Vance views Culp’s ascension as a watershed moment for Washington Republicans.
“The far right of the party has taken control,” said Vance, who was party chair from 2001 to 2006.
Culp’s quick rise happened in a strange year for Washington Republicans. With Inslee seeking a rare third term and anti-Trump sentiment running high, more established and more moderate candidates took a pass on the race. Out of that political vacuum appeared Culp who casts himself as an outsider.
“I’ve never been a politician, I detest most politicians,” Culp said at the May rally.
Culp’s political origin story begins in 2018. That’s when he declared his refusal – as police chief -- to enforce Initiative 1639, a sweeping gun control measure that, among other things, raised the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21.
Culp gained national attention for his stance. He appeared on Fox News and other national broadcasts and got a shout out on Facebook from rocker-turned-conservative-activist Ted Nugent who wrote: “Chief Loren Culp is an A[m]erican freedom warrior.”
Those 15 minutes of fame appear to have ignited his future political career. Soon after, Culp wrote a book titled “American Cop: Upholding the Constitution and Defending Your Right to Bear Arms,” which includes a forward by Nugent. As Culp tells it in interviews and on the stump, he started getting invites to speak at gun shows and Republican Party Lincoln Day dinners.
“The more I went and spoke and the more word got out about my book and people read it, the more people started asking me to please run for governor,” Culp told the crowd in Olympia in May.
Culp was not available for an interview for this story, but his campaign said they would make him available to the public radio Northwest News Network later this month.
As the election nears, Culp’s supporters have blanketed the state with his campaign signs -- another indication of his grassroots backing. But the self-described "freedom and liberty" candidate from Republic faces a series of electoral reality checks. It’s been 40 years since Washington voters last elected a Republican governor. He’s up against a well-known, two-term incumbent. And he’s trailing far behind in the fundraising race. Still, Democrats have warned their supporters that – just as with Trump -- Culp shouldn’t be underestimated. Current Republican Party Chair Caleb Heimlich agrees.
“This is a very tumultuous year and I think given all of that, anything’s possible,” Heimlich said.
Heimlich rejected the suggestion that Culp is running a “hard right” campaign. Instead, he framed Culp as a “commonsense” candidate who’s focused on individual liberties and returning “government back to the people.”
“And I think there are some elements of his messaging that can appeal to independents and even appeal to soft Democrats to make this a competitive statewide race,” Heimlich said.
Culp is counting on what he calls a "silent majority" to deliver him an upset win. Longtime Republican strategist Randy Pepple, who managed McKenna's 2012 campaign, said there's "always a path to winning," but that for Culp the math is not in his favor.
"The people who are going to decide this race, the last 10 to 15 percent that aren't in one of the partisan camps today -- he has to win virtually all of them to win the election," Pepple said.
Meanwhile, Washington Democrats have labeled Culp “dangerous and irresponsible.” They cite his opposition to Inslee’s mask mandate and his support for President Trump. They’ve also criticized his comments on police reform and climate change.
“Washington doesn’t need this Trump clone and his divisiveness,” said Tina Podlodowski, the chair of the Washington State Democratic Party in a statement after the primary.
As the election approaches, the contrast between Culp and Inslee couldn’t be more stark. While Inslee masks-up and confines his campaign to Zoom, Culp has been crisscrossing the state attending in-person events and holding “Victory Protest” rallies in defiance of Inslee's ban on large gatherings.