How Loren Culp’s book tour turned into a campaign for WA governor

The first-time candidate built his political brand by refusing to enforce a voter-approved gun law as police chief — then wrote a book about it.

Loren Culp on stage, with campaign image of his face behind him that reads #insubordinate

Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp greets the crowd at a rally in Arlington in Snohomish County on Aug. 22, 2020. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

When he applied to be a police officer 10 years ago, Loren Culp was 49. He had no experience in law enforcement, but said the job would fulfill a childhood dream.

Six years later, the former construction business owner was promoted to police chief in Republic, a town of 1,100 people in northeastern Washington. In that role, Culp has managed a department that, at its peak, consisted of himself and one other officer.

Now, Culp is applying for a much bigger job: leading Washington state, with a population of 7.6 million and more than 68,000 state employees.

Crosscut/KCTS Vote 2020 logoThe 59-year-old police chief, who has been married 40 years and has seven grandchildren, beat out a crowded Republican primary field to face Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee on the ballot this November. 

In several ways, Culp is unlike past Republican candidates put forth by the GOP establishment in Washington state. He is not from the Puget Sound region, as seven of the past eight Republican nominees for governor have been. He did not attend a university; rather, he dropped out of high school, got his GED and joined the Army.

Nor is Culp an experienced politician. Unlike other recent GOP candidates who have tried to end the Democrats’ 35-year grip on the governor’s office, Culp has never held local or statewide elected office, nor has he represented his community in the Legislature.

But Culp touts his lack of political experience as one of his main selling points. At rallies that often draw 500 people or more, Culp — an unabashed supporter of President Donald Trump — talks about bringing common sense to state government. 

To Culp, that means withdrawing mandates that people wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as reopening businesses that were closed in an effort to contain the virus.

It also means not enforcing certain laws he disagrees with, even if they have been approved by Washington state voters. 

Culp gained national attention in late 2018 when, as Republic’s police chief, he vowed to not enforce Initiative 1639, a statewide gun control law. The measure, which nearly 60% of Washington voters approved, required enhanced background checks for firearm purchases and banned people under 21 from buying semiautomatic rifles.

While no court has ruled the law unconstitutional — it was recently upheld by a federal judge — Culp has maintained that I-1639 is a clear violation of citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms. 

“I knew it was impairing the rights of 18- to 21 year olds — you know, military-aged young people — and so I took a stance and said I would not enforce that. And that ended up getting me on national news,” Culp said in a recent interview, recalling his early media appearances on Fox News and the conservative One America News Network.

A few months later, Culp chronicled his decision not to enforce the voter-approved gun law in a book titled American Cop.

It was during his book tour that Culp said he started talking to people around the state and began considering a run for governor. He said many citizens asked him to run, impressed by the way he stood up for the rights of 18- to 20-year-olds. 

Culp now sells paperback copies of his book at his rallies for $30 each. 

Culp's campaign was warned in June that purchasing copies of American Cop to sell as a campaign fundraiser appeared to violate state rules. State law says candidates can’t use campaign donations to benefit themselves personally, such as by buying their own books.

Since June, the Culp campaign has changed its practices to comply with the warning, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The campaign didn’t respond to questions about the book sales, which state regulators said they are still watching closely.

A supporter of Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp attends a free rally and concert, Aug. 22, 2020. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

‘A gun is not a person’

A few things stand out when reading Culp's 159-page book. One is that the final third doesn’t consist of Culp’s words at all, but instead is taken up by the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which are reprinted in full. 

Another is that the book is peppered with quotes attributed to America’s Founding Fathers, mostly about the importance of gun ownership and fighting tyranny. A little research, however, reveals several of those quotes aren’t real. Researchers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, for instance, say there’s no record Jefferson ever said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” — or this, or this. The book throws in at least one other questionable quote, from Alexander Hamilton, for good measure.

Several times, Culp’s book compares Washington’s 2018 gun law, I-1639, to historic atrocities such as the Holocaust and segregationist laws of the Jim Crow South. The three topics interrelate, Culp says, because all are examples of unjust laws police should have refused to enforce.

“I hope that we can move past the statement that because you are ‘law enforcement’ you must enforce the law,” Culp writes at one point. “Remember Rosa Parks and the millions of Jews who lost their lives due to that thinking. Don’t be that cop.”

He later adds: “Rosa Parks would never have been arrested and taken to jail if police would have understood this principle, and millions of Jews would not have been marched to their deaths in Germany.”

Culp has made similar comparisons in interviews on the campaign trail, drawing condemnation from Inslee’s campaign, as well as the state Democratic Party.

“A gun is not a person — a gun does not have any inherent civil rights,” said Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democrats. She called Culp’s historical analogies “false equivalencies and whataboutism.”

Still, Culp has a devoted following. His outdoor rallies are crowded, with nearly all the attendees choosing not to wear masks. His videos on Facebook Live frequently draw thousands of viewers — sometimes tens of thousands.

“He’s got more grassroots enthusiasm than I have seen from any statewide candidate in a long time in this state,” said Peter Graves, a Republican political consultant. “That doesn’t necessarily translate to him picking up suburban votes, like he needs to do [to win], but he’s not making a bad run of it.”

One of Culp’s biggest fans is singer-songwriter Ted Nugent, who is also a huge Trump supporter. Nugent not only wrote the foreword to Culp’s book, but at one point helped get Culp and the town of Republic a new K-9 dog after a previous dog died of cancer. 

Last year, Nugent also helped Culp connect with a campaign manager, Christopher Gergen, who formerly served as Trump’s state political director in Oregon. At an Aug. 22 rally in Arlington, Gergen recounted how Nugent called him in 2019 and told him to drop everything and call Loren Culp. 

“He said, ‘You remember last year when there was that cop that gave the middle finger to the governor of Washington state?’’ Gergen told the crowd. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that was great.’ ”

Gergen made the call.

Now, Culp talks on the campaign trail about bringing law and order to Washington’s streets, which he often describes as filled with drugs and feces. At the Arlington rally, he addressed the crowd while standing in front of a logo that bore his face, his name and a single word: #Insubordinate.

Cindy Sandland of Seattle waves a flag during a free rally and concert for Loren Culp, Aug. 22, 2020. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

‘... Our founders hated democracy’ 

For a candidate riding a wave of populist appeal, whose campaign ads often include the words, “We the People,” Culp has at least one view that is somewhat unusual. The small-town police chief doesn’t like Washington’s system of initiative and referendum, the citizen-led process that allows voters to approve laws or repeal them at the ballot box.

While Culp is quick to quote the parts of the Washington state constitution that defend privacy and the right to bear arms, he doesn’t hold the same reverence for the section of the state constitution that enshrines those initiative and referendum powers.

“What we see in Washington State with the initiative process is exactly what our founding fathers warned us about over 200 years ago: direct democracy, which is majority rule,” Culp writes in his book.

“... A lynch mob is an example of majority rule,” Culp continues.

He suggests people in the media — and even past presidents — have been trying “to change our form of government by repeating the lie that we are a democracy,” as opposed to a republic.

“It is obvious to me, our founders hated democracy,” Culp writes. By contrast, Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto, and Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Tse-tung “loved democracy,” Culp writes. 

Cornell Clayton, a professor who directs the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, said Culp’s line of thinking ignores all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution approved after the Civil War, which “fundamentally changed the nature of the Constitution and made it more democratic.” Those later amendments are why state legislators no longer appoint U.S senators; Black people are no longer enslaved; and women and Black people can vote.

Clayton said Culp is also off base by insisting that he and other government officials are obligated to not enforce laws they personally deem unconstitutional. “His duty is to uphold the constitution as it is interpreted by the courts,” Clayton said.

When asked what gives him the authority to single-handedly determine what is constitutional and what isn’t, as opposed to following judicial rulings, Culp gave another example of a human rights violation: the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“The Supreme Court of the United States upheld a Democrat president, FDR, putting 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II for our safety,” Culp said. “So judges don't always come down on the right side of things.”

Clayton said that while it’s true that people have to make individual moral judgments themselves, that’s different from the “question of the institutional responsibilities as an elected official.”

“If he wants to disagree with what the court asks him to do on moral grounds, that’s perfectly fine, but then what you do is you resign your office,” Clayton said. “You don’t flout the law, especially if you are charged with upholding the law.”

Culp isn’t alone in his views, however. A group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which recently named Culp its police chief of the decade, similarly believes that local law enforcement officials have broad authority to decide which laws are constitutional and which are not. In addition to arguing that county sheriffs should assist in taking back land from the federal government, the group contends “county Sheriffs must use their authority to protect their citizens from abuse and violation of their rights by the invasion of illegal aliens.”

Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who works with Democrats, said she thinks Culp’s refusal to enforce a voter-approved law — and some of the positive attention he is getting for doing so — illustrates a fundamental divide in American society. Black people who break the law are rarely glorified in the same way, she said.

“There is a conversation to be had about who we allow to nobly talk about breaking the law, and who we demonize and call thugs or lawless people to justify law-and-order responses,” Fincher said.

The statewide gun law isn’t the only legal mandate Culp has chosen to ignore. During his campaign, Culp’s rallies have violated Inslee’s order restricting the size of in-person gatherings. Culp has criticized Inslee’s stay-at-home order, as well as a statewide mandate that people wear masks in public, as violating people’s civil liberties.

So far, courts have upheld the stay-home order and Inslee’s plan for reopening businesses as constitutional.

James Singer, a spokesperson for Inslee’s campaign, wrote in an emailed statement that “the governor is encouraged at the progress we are making” as more counties start to reopen under Inslee’s Safe Start plan.

“That progress has resulted because of the dedicated work of Washingtonians to follow health guidelines and mask up — something Mr. Culp has refused to do,” Singer wrote.

‘Protect my rights, not my health’

At Culp’s Aug. 22 rally in Arlington, you could get a sense of some of his supporters’ views before you left the parking area. One car’s window bore the message, “Culp 2020 — reopen the state” in white shoe polish. Another car featured a window decal with the logo of the Three Percenters, a part of the militia movement whose members the Anti-Defamation League describes as “anti-government extremists.”

At the event itself, hundreds of people set up lawn chairs in the parking lot of a strip mall to watch a live concert, which kicked off with a band’s rendition of “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” One couple danced in front of the stage, joined by a pair of Nigerian dwarf goats named Splash and Quiver.

Some Culp supporters said they don’t see the police chief’s selective enforcement of the law as any different than Democratic mayors and governors declining to assist with enforcing federal immigration laws. 

“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?” said Katrina Van Rensum of Marysville, who is 49. At the rally, Van Rensum bought an 8-foot-wide Culp sign for $100 that she planned to set up on her property. 

Most commonly, the Culp supporters who talked to a reporter said their biggest frustration with Inslee’s leadership was his closure of businesses in response to the coronavirus crisis. 

Two men, who both said they own businesses in or around Arlington, echoed Culp’s frequent complaint that Inslee’s stay-at-home order “picked winners and losers” by deeming some businesses essential and others nonessential. The two men, both in their 50s, declined to give their names. 

Neither wore a mask at the outdoor rally, even while standing within 6 feet of others. “Has it been proven?” one of the men asked about the efficacy of masks. 

When told there was substantial evidence that masks reduce the spread of COVID-19, the man, who said he owned a small restaurant, replied, “It’s the government’s position and job to protect my rights, not my health.”  

Culp often talks about how it makes no sense for a small barbershop in Snohomish to have been shut down, while large stores that sell groceries, including Costco and Walmart, were deemed “essential" and allowed to remain open. 

He also frequently has said that Inslee should trust people to make their own decisions about their health, but has been vague about how he would persuade people to wear masks and socially distance themselves if the state’s mandates were lifted.

In Arlington, Culp told the crowd that he would “have press conferences with medical professionals to explain to everyone what’s going on — what we should do to protect ourselves, what might happen if we don’t follow the medical advice.” For his part, Inslee holds frequent press conferences with the state’s secretary of health, John Wiesman, who has a doctorate in public health, as well as State Health Officer Kathy Lofy, who is a medical doctor.

Questioning racism

On the edge of the crowd in Arlington, a man watched intently as Culp spoke. He wore a shirt with the number 12 written in Roman numerals and surrounded by stars. The Anti-Defamation League identifies the number 12 as a numeric symbol for Aryan Brotherhood-named racist prison gangs.

Culp’s campaign didn’t respond to an inquiry this week asking about his views on the militia movement. The chairman of the state Republican Party, Caleb Heimlich, also didn’t respond to a request for an interview to discuss Culp’s campaign.

Earlier in the election cycle, Culp’s campaign paid $7,000 to Peter Diaz, a businessman who started a group called American Wolf. While Diaz says American Wolf isn’t an actual “group,” per se, it organizes armed civilians to go to anti-racism protests and act as “peacekeepers,” with a mission of supporting law enforcement officers. 

In an August phone interview, Culp said he has never seen racism during his time as a police officer and doesn’t believe there is institutional racism in the justice system. “I’ve never seen anyone even act anywhere close to being a racist, and I’ve been in police work for 10 years,” he said.

A week and a half later, Culp told the crowd in Arlington that George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in a terrible manner. People were right to protest that, Culp said, but he objects to protests that “turn violent.” 

Culp then accused “the left” of wanting to divide people by race, sex and age. “That’s not America,” he said.

Vernon Johnson, a political science professor who directs Western Washington University’s Ralph Munro Institute for Civic Education, said Culp may not be trying to cultivate support among racists, armed militia members or white supremacists. But, at a minimum, Culp’s experience as a police chief in a rural county where less than 1% of the population is Black seems to have left him with an incomplete understanding of the role racism plays in U.S. society, Johnson said. 

“I don’t think he has much of an understanding of race, but I don’t think race is driving him,” Johnson said.

At the same time, Johnson said, “I think the racists and the white nationalists will vote for him.”

Prospects in November  

While Culp’s profile and grassroots support are different from other recent Republican candidates for governor, he still faces an uphill battle in the general election. The last Republican to win the governor’s race in Washington state was John Spellman in 1980.

Trump is also unpopular in Washington state, having won only 38% of the statewide vote in 2016. That has left Democrats fairly confident that their candidates will do well this November, as liberals show up to vote against the sitting president. 

King County Executive Dow Constantine said those factors are why Republicans ended up with Loren Culp as their candidate for governor in the first place. More moderate and experienced GOP leaders, including Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and state House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, opted not to enter the race.

“No one is willing to put millions and millions of dollars into an essentially no-win proposition,” said Constantine, who said he doesn’t blame Republicans like Dammeier for not wanting “to be a sacrificial lamb.”

Another candidate supported by the party’s establishment wing, Yakima doctor Raul Garcia, failed to make it through the primary. 

Chris Vance, the former chairman of the state Republican Party who has since become an independent, said Culp “has no chance to win.”

“The Republican Party has always nominated serious people for governor, all from King County, all relatively moderate. And now, the police chief of Republic, really? Tell me the party hasn’t changed,” said Vance, who left the GOP because he couldn’t stand Trump.

But Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant, said it appears that Culp managed to motivate many more Republican voters to turn out for the August primary than is typical.

It remains to be seen whether that effect will carry over to the general election, and whether it could be enough for Culp to overcome the very long odds he faces, said Hays, who worked on the campaign of Inslee’s 2016 challenger, Bill Bryant.

“He really brought new people to the primary,” Hays said of Culp. “Not very many people can get people to change their voting pattern. That’s a strength.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.