Brandi Kruse: Local races to watch on Election Day

Will Washington’s ‘Trump’ outperform expectations?

Governor Jay Inslee labeled his opponent “mini Trump” during an October debate (and not in a nice way), but look for Loren Culp to outperform the president and polling.

Culp, a political newcomer and small town police chief, defied traditional logic that moderate Republicans are more likely general election challengers in a state that has been under Democratic leadership since 1985.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Loren Culp. (Image credit: Pool/TVW)

Culp, a Constitutional conservative, leaned into his support for President Trump early on, despite the president’s consistently poor approval rating in Washington. Nevertheless, Inslee is under intense scrutiny as he seeks his third term and faces criticism for what some view as a heavy-handed approach to coronavirus mandates and the mishandling of unemployment benefits.

While it will be nearly impossible for Culp to capture the governor’s mansion, look for him to do better than polls suggest. Culp’s rise has been meteoric and his use of social media is nothing short of masterful. Besides, Republican gubernatorial candidates typically outperform Republican presidential candidates in Washington (2012: Romney 41%/McKenna 48%, 2016: Trump 38%/Bryant 45%).

Can Republicans retake the 8th?

In 2018, Dr. Kim Schrier became the first Democrat ever elected to represent Washington’s 8th Congressional District. Fast forward to 2020 and she performed below expectations in the August primary, capturing just 43% of the vote.

Combined votes for the top three Republican candidates in the primary totaled 49%.

As far as Congressional races go, the 8th District is a puzzle. Geographically it spans the Cascade mountain range and includes both urban and rural areas. The makeup challenges candidates to appeal to voters who prioritize much different issues – everything from farming to healthcare to public safety.

While the 8th flipped blue in 2018, it is far from a reliably blue district. Republicans hope a moderate like Jesse Jensen is their ticket to retaking the seat. Jensen has worked hard to tie Schrier, a moderate Democrat, to the politics of Seattle – telling suburban voters her views are outside the mainstream.

Not only does the strategy mirror the national GOP strategy, but it is also reminiscent of Schrier’s 2018 opponent. Republican Dino Rossi tried to convince voters Schrier was the most “left-wing candidate” he ever faced. It didn’t work and Rossi lost.

But as Seattle defunds police and lets rioters roam the city, the strategy of likening Schrier to progressives like fellow Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal could strike a different chord with voters in 2020.

Will Inslee’s endorsement backfire?

Governor Jay Inslee did something this election cycle that he has never done before – endorsed the general election challenger of a sitting Democrat. Not only that, but Inslee went as far as to campaign for State Senator Mark Mullet’s opponent, Ingrid Anderson, waving signs with her earlier this month in Issaquah.

Anderson, a nurse, is a more progressive alternative to Mullet, a moderate who has parted with the governor on taxes and a clean-fuel standard, among other things.  

While Inslee at least gave Mullet the courtesy of a phone call before endorsing Anderson, voters in the 5th Legislative District took note of the interparty betrayal and are intrigued, to say the least. The 5th is not a solidly blue district. It includes Issaquah, Snoqualmie and North Bend – and is home to plenty of Republicans. Typically, Republican voters might skip over a D-on-D race on their ballots. But now? Those R’s might fill in the circle for Mullet simply to spite the governor.

Democrat v. Democrat

The 5th Legislative District isn’t the only high-profile race between Democrats. Outgoing U.S. Congressman Denny Heck and State Senator Marko Liias are vying for the job of lieutenant governor.

Heck, a more moderate choice, is considered the leading contender. But don’t count out Liias, a progressive who has worked hard to paint Heck as a richy rich who is scared of bold ideas.

RELATED: Two Democrats face off for Lt. Gov., Republican chases write-in opportunity

While the race for lietenant governor rarely gets this much attention, there’s added intrigue this time around as some wonder whether Governor Inslee, a failed 2020 presidential contender, would leave to take a job in a Biden administration.

There is another added wrinkle in the race as Republican Joshua Freed, a failed gubernatorial candidate, stages a write-in campaign. In theory, if Heck and Liias split the Democratic vote evenly, Freed could win with just 34%.

Meanwhile, the race to replace Heck in the 10th Congressional District also pits a moderate against a progressive.

Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, a moderate considered friendly to business interests, is up against State Representative Beth Doglio, a progressive backed by labor and endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders. 

The results of both races will tell us a lot about the appetite for increasingly progressive leadership.

The Referendum effect

The race for superintendent of public instruction is one of the nastiest in the state right now. The outcome of the race could also dictate whether voters approve or reject a bill mandating comprehensive sex education.

Maia Espinoza, a fierce opponent of mandated sex ed, is running against current Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

Espinoza, labeled “the Betsy DeVos of Washington state” by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, launched her campaign based on opposition to Senate Bill 5395. The bill, passed by lawmakers in Olympia and signed into law by Governor Inslee, would mandate sex education for kids as young as elementary school. Parents would be able to opt their child out.

Opposition to the bill prompted Referendum 90 – a chance for voters to decide whether to keep mandated sex ed or do away with it.

It means Espinoza will appear on the same ballot as the issue that is central to her campaign. As such, it is highly likely that her fortunes are tied to the outcome of Referendum 90. If voters support keeping the sex ed bill in place, they are unlikely to support Espinoza’s vision for the future of public schools and vice versa. 

For more election coverage and analysis, watch "The Divide with Brandi Kruse" every Sunday at 7:30am on Q13 FOX.