Poll: Inslee ‘way ahead’ of Culp, Eyman for Washington governor

Inslee has tepid approval ratings, but Republican candidates are nowhere near him in the latest Crosscut/Elway Poll.

Gov. Jay Inslee

In this photo taken June 16, 2020, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee talks about the coronavirus outbreak following a briefing at Yakima Valley College in Yakima. The coronavirus pandemic is hitting Yakima County hard, with cases surging far faster in than in the rest of the state. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Just under half of Washington voters view Gov. Jay Inslee in a positive light, new polling data shows. 

Still, the Democratic governor remains head and shoulders above the other candidates seeking to defeat him this November — including anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, who isn’t gaining much traction, according to the Crosscut/Elway Poll released this week.

Inslee, who is running for a rare third term, was the top choice of 46% of voters who took part in the poll. The survey of 402 registered voters was conducted from July 11 to July 15, just days before voters began receiving ballots in the mail for the Aug. 4 primary election. The primary will whittle down the field of 36 gubernatorial candidates to two.  

Only 33% of the people surveyed said they plan to vote for a candidate other than Inslee in the November general election.

But the race remains fluid, particularly on the Republican side. A quarter of poll respondents said they remained undecided as to who they’ll support in November. 

Only one Republican candidate registered in double digits: Republic Police Chief Loren Culp, who drew support from 14% of poll respondents.

Recently, Culp made headlines by saying he wouldn’t enforce the voter-approved Initiative 1639, which raised the legal age to buy semiautomatic rifles and required enhanced background checks for gun purchases, among other changes. 

During this year’s COVID-19 outbreak, Culp has also railed against Inslee’s stay-at-home order, calling it unconstitutional.

Nick Baker, a retired logger in Okanogan County, said he cast his ballot for Culp this week mostly because of Culp’s stance on firearms laws. 

“He’s done a really good job up here, and he supports gun rights,” said Baker, 63, who identifies as an independent and participated in the poll. Baker said he lives about five miles from the border with Ferry County, where the town of Republic is located.  

Other GOP candidates for governor received less support, with the differences between them falling within the poll’s 5% margin of error.

Raul Garcia, a Yakima doctor, was the top choice of 6% of respondents, while former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed was favored by 5% of those polled. 

Eyman, known for sponsoring anti-tax initiatives, got 4%, while state Sen. Phil Fortunato of Auburn was favored by 2% of respondents.

Pollster Stuart Elway said one surprise was the low level of support for Eyman, who has built up name recognition by sponsoring 17 statewide initiatives that have gone on the ballot since 1998. 

The poll numbers are so close, however, that any Republican could pull ahead at this point and end up facing Inslee in November, Elway said.

While Inslee is “way ahead” right now in his bid to win a third term, “it’s no shoo-in,” Elway added.

“They’d rather it be him than any of the others at this point, but he’s still not over 50%,” Elway said of voters’ current preferences.

At the same time, Inslee’s overall approval rating is the highest it has been since he took office in 2013. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed this month gave Inslee a favorable rating, calling his performance either “good” or “excellent.” An equal percentage viewed Inslee’s performance negatively, rating it as only “fair” or “poor.”

While having an approval rating below 50% may seem underwhelming, Inslee’s 49% rating actually puts him ahead of where his two predecessors were during their final months in office, said Elway, who has been measuring approval ratings for Washington governors since 1993.

Inslee’s current approval rating is also higher than it was in August 2016, just a few months before he went on to win reelection.

Joe Miller, a Mountlake Terrace resident who owns a boat repair yard in Ballard, said he liked Inslee’s focus on combating climate change and protecting the environment, topics that were at the center of the governor’s short-lived presidential run in 2019

Miller, who is 43, also thinks Inslee has handled the COVID-19 crisis well, despite pushback from President Donald Trump. In March, Trump called Inslee “a snake.”

“I feel like he is trying really hard to do what’s best for Washingtonians and to try to keep us as safe as possible,” Miller said of Inslee.

Fifty-one percent of poll respondents gave Inslee positive marks for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, while 46% rated him negatively for his response to the outbreak. 

While an earlier Crosscut/Elway poll in April found Inslee had a 75% approval rating for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, that question was worded differently than the one in the July poll, Elway said.

Because of that, Elway said he doesn’t think the new poll shows an actual drop in Inslee’s pandemic rating. The April poll similarly found that 46% of respondents rated Inslee’s COVID-19 response as “good.”

Inslee’s response to the pandemic has been a flashpoint in the governor’s race, with two of the Republican candidates for governor, Eyman and Freed, suing over aspects of his stay-at-home order.

Increasingly in recent weeks, however, momentum has been building around a candidate who has been more measured in his criticism of the governor’s order.

Several prominent Republicans have thrown their support behind Garcia, the Yakima doctor, saying he is the best candidate to take on Inslee in November. 

Rob McKenna, the former state attorney general who ran against Inslee in 2012, described Garcia as a moderate “who will resonate with a lot of voters.” 

“I think he is a candidate that all Republicans will be able to rally around and be proud of,” McKenna said Friday, before the release of the new Crosscut/Elway Poll.

Garcia, the director of emergency medicine at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco, has criticized Inslee’s stay-at-home-order as going on too long and failing to adequately help hospitals and people in nursing homes. But Garcia wears a mask in public when he can’t socially distance and hasn’t filed a lawsuit claiming the governor’s order is unconstitutional. 

In addition to McKenna, other Republicans endorsing Garcia include former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, former Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, former Gov. Dan Evans and state Senate GOP Leader Mark Schoesler.

Peter Graves, a Republican political consultant, said many Republicans have been worried about a polarizing figure like Eyman getting through next month’s top-two primary.

Already, GOP leaders are concerned they might lose seats in the Legislature due to backlash against Trump, who is not widely popular in Washington state, Graves said.

Having Eyman as the Republican candidate for governor would only make things worse, he said.

The conservative initiative promoter is known for his antics, including dressing in costume, sending incendiary fundraising emails and taking a chair from an Office Depot in Lacey without paying for it. Prosecutors agreed to drop a theft charge in exchange for Eyman committing no new crimes and staying away from the Office Depot for nine months.

Eyman is also embroiled in a long-running campaign finance lawsuit, in which he is accused of enriching himself with donations meant to support citizen initiatives. 

“He would be a disaster for downballot candidates,” Graves said.

The mid-July poll doesn’t reflect the effects of last-minute spending by the candidates as they try to win voters to their side. For instance, Freed, the former Bothell mayor, has started airing ads in just the past few days that could make a difference in the race, Graves said.

Freed, who has raised the most money of any of the Republican candidates for governor, is known for leading a ballot measure that sought to block supervised injection sites in King County.

Some voters who were undecided at the time of the poll have since made up their minds. 

One of those is Sheila Marston, a 78-year-old retiree who lives in Tacoma. After reviewing candidates’ statements in the voters’ pamphlet, she cast her vote for Fortunato, the state senator from Auburn. She said she liked Fortunato’s statements about the importance of public safety and the need to tackle homelessness.

By contrast, Marston, who leans Republican, said she was unhappy with how Inslee has dealt with the state’s homelessness crisis, as well as his management of Western State Hospital in Lakewood, which lost its federal certification under Inslee’s watch.

Marston said she also thought Inslee “should have intervened” during the recent anti-racism protests in Seattle, when protesters created an area called the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, around a police precinct building. 

While local officials handled most of the response to the protests, that was an area where Inslee received low marks. Only about one-third of poll respondents took a positive view of Inslee’s response to the protests, while 62% rated him negatively on that issue. Nearly half of poll respondents rated Inslee’s performance during the protests as “poor.”

Voters’ feelings on that issue were sharply divided along partisan lines, with 63% of Democrats taking a positive view of Inslee’s role and 96% of Republicans rating Inslee’s performance negatively.

Elway said those numbers could reflect the nationwide focus on the Seattle and Portland protests, since Inslee “hasn’t been very visibly active on that issue.”

About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.