When the pandemic hit, it wasn't President Trump who imposed restrictions on daily life in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. It was state governors like Gov. Jay Inslee, speaking directly into the camera and making decisions on whether to close schools, restaurants and other businesses.Inslee happened to be one of the few Democratic governors up for re-election this year. He earned praise locally and nationally early on for his swift shutdown orders and for keeping Washington's death rate low, compared to other states. But as COVID-19 fatigue wore on, Inslee's Republican opponent, Loren Culp, the police chief of the town of Republic, hoped to capitalize on what he saw as overbearing measures to control the virus, including criticism for "telling everyone what they are going to wear," referring to masks.
Ultimately, however, it didn't matter. According to early results posted Tuesday night, Inslee is easily on his way to a third term as Washington's governor. He's carrying nearly 60 percent of the vote statewide, beating Culp by 20 points. If it holds, that would be a wider margin for Inslee than his 2016 win over Bill Bryant.
In a speech Tuesday night, Inslee called his win a "vindication" of his efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and a "mandate" to continue to do so.
"I didn't just win the election tonight," Inslee says. "Science won."
An Inlander message left for the Inslee campaign Tuesday was not returned. A spokesperson for the Culp campaign said they would not comment for this story.
But state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who appears to have won another term of his own, says Inslee's coronavirus response was a strength of the gubernatorial campaign.
"I think our state — and Gov. Inslee leading our state — has fared as well as any other state in the country with COVID," Billig says, citing lower incidence rates and death rates.
He says when he'd hear arguments in the spring that Inslee overreacted with shutdown measures because COVID-19 isn't spreading as much in Washington, Billig would say they were missing the point.
"The reason we haven't had as much COVID is because of the quick, decisive leadership of Gov. Inslee with the early restrictions," Billig says.
"I think that has absolutely motivated voters," Heimlich says.
It wasn't necessarily what the state GOP focused on, though. He called it "tricky political ground." Instead, the GOP focused on the Democratic majority in the state Senate the last couple of years, the comprehensive sexual education bill, and taxes on small businesses.
"The vast majority of our campaigns, literature, TV ads, we were focusing more on the issues related to the legislative session and those types of policy issues," Heimlich says.
Still, Heimlich adds that some of Inslee's restrictions seemed "arbitrary," including initially limiting construction projects and the ability for people to go fishing.
While voters statewide gave Inslee an easy win, Spokane County and Eastern Washington chose Culp, signifying the east side of the state may be more frustrated with some of Inslee's COVID-19 restrictions. Early results Tuesday have Spokane County choosing Culp with 53 percent of the vote, which would be roughly the same majority as Spokane County's vote for Bill Bryant in 2016.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, notes that he was among those who were pushing for Spokane County to move on to Phase 2 of Inslee's reopening plan this spring. But he sees Inslee's action on coronavirus as a strength.
"He put public health first," Riccelli says. "He was guided by those people in charge who had medical backgrounds and were using scientific data and that's been a strong point for all of this."
Still, Riccelli says the support for Inslee east of the Cascades is a bit different than that in Seattle. He wonders if that will change as COVID-19 numbers continue to climb in Eastern Washington.
"I think, generally, across the state and nation, elected positions are trying to manage a response to the pandemic with COVID fatigue," Riccelli says. "What do we need to do, what are we willing to do, and what are the trade-offs?"