Washington voters re-elect Governor Jay Inslee and support Joe Biden for president on November 3, 2020.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/30/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22590

In the election of November 3, 2020, Washington voters re-elect Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951), and nine of the state's 10 members of Congress who are seeking re-election. Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland (b. 1962) defeats fellow Democrat Beth Doglio (b. 1965) to win the one open U.S. House seat. Former Vice President Joe Biden (b. 1942) carries the state as he defeats incumbent Donald Trump (b. 1946) in the race for president, although repeated false claims by Trump and some supporters that the election was stolen will lead to a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol that delays, but does not prevent, Congress from confirming Biden's victory. State voters, by a wide margin, approve Referendum 90, which requires all Washington school districts to provide sex education. The referendum is the first mandatory sex-education measure on a statewide ballot anywhere in the country.

Campaign During COVID

Like all aspects of life, the 2020 election was profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic that began sweeping the globe at the start of the year, just as the U.S. presidential primaries were getting underway. The nation's first confirmed case of COVID-19 and first reported deaths from the disease both occurred in Washington, and Governor Jay Inslee was among the first to declare a state of emergency and issue orders closing schools and businesses, calling on residents to shelter in place, and requiring that face masks be worn in public.

In 2019 Inslee had briefly joined the crowded field seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, but he withdrew from the presidential race that August to run for a third term as governor. The governor's response to the COVID-19 pandemic became a central issue in his campaign for re-election. His Republican challenger, Loren Culp, police chief for the town of Republic in Ferry County, attacked Inslee's emergency orders imposing mask mandates and other safety restrictions as "tyrannical" and urged citizens to defy them ("Democrat Inslee ..."). Inslee and others saw the contest as a referendum on his response to the pandemic. Following his easy victory, with 57 percent of the vote to Culp's 43 percent, the governor said:

"So it is clear that people chose to continue with our scientifically based program ... I think voters were aware that other places were experiencing tremendous losses, hospitals that were full ... We have avoided that fate, and I think voters understood that we've had success because we've made decisions on a scientific basis" ("Wyman's Lead Grows ...").

Inslee's victory made him the third person to win three terms as Washington's governor, following Republicans Arthur Langlie and Dan Evans.

The pandemic affected campaigning up and down the ballot. Many events, including both of the major-party presidential nominating conventions, were held largely or entirely virtually, and social-distancing, masking, and other health-and-safety measures were frequently used for in-person events, although some candidates, Culp and Trump among them, also held rallies without masks or distancing measures.

Voting itself was less affected in Washington than in many other states, because the state had implemented voting by mail years earlier, and then in 2011 had become the second state in the country to adopt all-mail voting. During the 2020 election, Washington's Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman (b. 1962) used her office's longtime experience with mail voting to assist officials in other states as they sought to implement or expand mail and absentee voting in response to the pandemic. Pointing to security measures Washington had put in place, she "gained national attention as a defender of voting by mail" when the process came under attack by politicians including Trump (Hudetz). Nonetheless, Wyman's challenger, Democratic State Representative Gael Tarleton, criticized her for not doing more to refute Trump's charges and oppose his efforts to cut back postal service ahead of the election. However, like Inslee, although by a lesser margin of 54 to 46 percent, Wyman prevailed to win a third term.

Wyman's Democratic opponent was not the only one to criticize her handling of the election. Her fellow Republican, Culp, who lost to Inslee by more than 500,000 votes, refused to concede or to accept the results certified by Wyman's office. Instead, like Trump in the presidential race, Culp and some supporters made false and unsubstantiated claims of fraud and election irregularities and Culp filed a lawsuit against Wyman alleging "intolerable voting anomalies" and asserting that the election "was at all times fraudulent" ("Culp Drops ..."). The state Republican Party did not support the lawsuit and party chair Caleb Heimlich defended Wyman, praising her oversight of the election. Culp's lawyer withdrew the lawsuit within a few weeks, after Attorney General Bob Ferguson (b. 1965) warned the state would not only move to dismiss the suit but request that the court impose sanctions on the lawyer "for making meritless claims in a court of law" ("Culp Drops ...").

With Wyman's victory, Republicans had held the Secretary of State's office for 56 straight years in otherwise increasingly Democratic Washington, ever since Republican Lud Kramer (1932-2004) ousted Democratic incumbent Vic Meyers (1898-1991) in the 1964 election. But that streak ended in November 2021, when Wyman left the office to take a leading federal election-security position, becoming head of election security for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Although Heimlich and others called on Inslee to replace Wyman with another Republican, the governor appointed Democratic State Senator Steve Hobbs to serve as Secretary of State through the 2022 general election, when the final two years of Wyman's term would be filled.

Lengthy Count, False Claims, Violent Insurrection

While Culp's claims of fraud in the gubernatorial election had little impact, similar baseless claims by Donald Trump and many supporters that the presidential election was fraudulently stolen from Trump led to an unprecedented national crisis culminating in a violent attack on the United States Capitol as Congress met in January to certify the results of the Electoral College vote in Biden's favor.

Due in part to the substantial increase in voting by mail in response to the COVID pandemic -- a record 46 percent of all voters nationwide voted by mail or absentee ballot -- counting ballots in the presidential race took longer than usual. A number of states were too close to call for several days after Election Day, but Washington was not one of them. State voters, who had not favored a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) in 1984, voted overwhelmingly for Biden over Trump, 58 to 39 percent, and Washington was among the states called on election night. In states where the popular vote was closer, determining the winner took longer. Not until Saturday morning, November 7, four days after Election Day, when the vote count in Pennsylvania showed that Biden had won that swing state's 20 electoral votes, did the major news outlets all report that Biden had more than the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency. Other states took even longer, and results in Wisconsin and Georgia were close enough that recounts were held, which confirmed Biden had won both of those states.

When the results in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were certified by local election officials, they showed that Biden had won a total of 306 electoral votes to Trump's 232. Unlike in 2016, when Trump had prevailed in the Electoral College despite his opponent, Hilary Clinton, winning the popular vote, Biden also won the popular vote, with 81,286,365 votes nationwide to Trump's 74,225,845. With national voter turnout at 66 percent, 7 points higher than in 2016, both candidates' totals were higher than any previous presidential candidate had received.

Despite the clearcut results showing he had lost the presidency, Trump refused to concede and instead insisted that he had won the election. He and many supporters repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that there had been widespread fraud, and filed multiple court actions challenging results in many states. None were successful and most were summarily dismissed by the courts. Even after the presidential electors met on December 14 and cast their votes 306 to 232 for Biden, pursuant to the certified results of each state's balloting, Trump and many supporters continued to make unsupported claims that the results were fraudulent and that Trump had won.

Leading up to January 6, 2021, the date set by statute for Congress to formally count the electoral votes and announce the result, as provided in the constitution, a number of Republican senators and representatives said that they would challenge the votes from some states that Trump had lost. Trump called on supporters to come to Washington, D.C., that day for a "Save America March," and many did so, including members of the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other right-wing extremist groups.

On January 6, Trump addressed a rally near the White House, repeating his false claims about the election and then encouraging his supporters to march to the Capitol, where Congress was convening to receive the electoral votes. Many did so, joining other well-organized attackers, many of them armed, who overwhelmed police guarding the Capitol and broke in, forcing lawmakers into hiding and looting the building before order was restored several hours later. Five people died as a result of the insurrection and the world was shocked by the violent attack on the symbol of American democracy.

The insurrection delayed the Congressional count of the electoral votes until the early morning of January 7. Republican legislators joined Democrats in condemning the violent attack on their legislative home, but some filed objections to the electoral votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona. The objections were unsuccessful and Congress accepted the 306-to-232 electoral vote in Biden's favor.

On January 13, a week after the attack and a week before Biden was sworn in as president, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for his role in "inciting violence against the Government of the United States" (Encyclopedia Britannica). Trump became the first U.S. president to be impeached twice, and the first whose trial in the Senate took place after he had left office. A month later, on February 13, the Senate voted 57 to 43 to convict Trump, short of the 67 votes needed for conviction. Investigations by the FBI and other agencies got underway immediately after the attack and the first accused rioters were arrested and charged within days. By the end of the year more than 700 had been charged and many of those had pled guilty or been convicted. Investigations, arrests, and criminal proceedings continued throughout 2022, as did an investigation into the insurrection by a select committee of the House of Representatives. 

Congressional Races

Nine of Washington's 10 U.S. Representatives sought re-election in 2020, all successfully. In the Eighth District, covering most of eastern King and Pierce counties as well as Chelan and Kittitas counties in Eastern Washington, Democrat Kim Schrier (b. 1968) defeated Republican Jesse Jensen by 52 to 48 percent. The eight other incumbents -- Democrats Suzan DelBene (b. 1962) in the First District, Rick Larsen (b. 1965) in the Second, Derek Kilmer (b. 1974) in the Sixth, Pramila Jayapal (b. 1965) in the Seventh, and Adam Smith (b. 1965) in the Ninth, and Republicans Jaime Herrera Beutler (b. 1978) in the Third District, Dan Newhouse (b. 1955) in the Fourth, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (b. 1969) in the Fifth -- all prevailed easily, with vote totals ranging from 56 percent to more than 80 percent.

The only open seat was in the Tenth District, covering most of Thurston County, much of southeastern Pierce County, and part of Mason County near Shelton. Incumbent Democrat Denny Heck (b. 1952), who had represented the district since its creation in 2012, gave up the seat to run for Lieutenant Governor. Both candidates to replace Heck were also Democrats, a result made possible by the Washington's "top two" primary system. Marilyn Strickland, who had served as mayor of Tacoma and then headed the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, was seen as the more moderate candidate. Her opponent, State Representative Beth Doglio of Olympia, a longtime environmental activist, identified with the party's progressive wing.

Strickland won the race with 49 percent of the vote to Doglio's 36 percent (15 percent went to write-in candidates). With her victory, Strickland became one of the first Korean American woman to serve in Congress and the first African American to represent the State of Washington there.

State Offices and Referendum 90

Just as the position Denny Heck left became the only open Congressional seat in the state, the position he sought was the only open statewide office. The previous Lieutenant Governor, Democrat Cyrus Habib (b. 1981), stepped down after one term to become a Catholic Jesuit priest. As in the Congressional race, both candidates for the open seat were also Democrats, with Heck facing off against State Senator Marko Liias (b. 1981). Heck prevailed, taking 46 percent of the vote, with Liias winning 34 percent and the remainder going to write-ins.

Like Governor Inslee and Secretary of State Wyman, all the state executive officeholders except Habib sought re-election. All but one were successful. In the race for State Treasurer, Republican Duane Davidson (b. 1959), seeking his second term, lost to Democratic State Representative Mike Pellicciotti (b. 1978) of Federal Way. In the remaining races, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Auditor Pat McCarthy, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, and Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, all Democrats, defeated Republican challengers, while Chris Reykdal defeated Maia Espinoza in the nonpartisan race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

As elsewhere on the ballot, incumbents won most of the races for the state legislature. Just a few incumbents from each party lost, and the overall makeup of the legislature did not change, with Democrats maintaining significant majorities in both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.

Unlike many recent general elections, in which voters decided multiple initiative and referendum measures, there was only one on the 2020 ballot, but it generated considerable controversy and made history. Referendum 90 asked voters whether to approve or reject a sex-education law passed earlier that year by the legislature. The law required all Washington school districts to provide sexual-health education to all grades, but allowed families to opt out. The new law angered opponents of sex education, who mounted a successful petition drive to bring the measure to voters and campaigned for them to reject it. Referendum 90, which was the first sex-education mandate to appear on a statewide ballot anywhere in the country, became a major issue in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Incumbent Chris Reykdal supported the measure, while challenger Maia Espinoza based her campaign on opposing it. In addition to re-electing Reykdal, voters sided with him on sex education, approving Referendum 90 by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.


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