Five Republican candidates stood at the front of a VFW post in Yakima on the first Saturday of May. One by one, they made their opening pitches for why the voters of Central Washington's ruby-red 4th district should send them to Congress.
Brad Klippert, a seven-term state representative from Kennewick, cited his decades in law enforcement and the military, an "A+" rating from the National Rifle Association and an award for "conservative achievement" from the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Army veteran Benancio "Ben" Garcia III talked about his family's long history of military service, from the great-great-grandfather who served in an all-Black "Buffalo Soldier" regiment in the 1800s to his father's time as an Army Ranger in Vietnam and his own service in Iraq.
Corey Gibson, who moved home to Selah after a marketing career took him around the world, touted a nationwide network of "America first" candidates he founded and warned that God-given freedoms are at stake in the election.
Former NASCAR driver Jerrod Sessler launched into a "full-throttle" rundown of a life that took him from a rough childhood to a successful career he attributed to the American dream, "made possible because of our great Constitution."
But Loren Culp, the former small-town police chief who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2020, held the Trump card. After name-dropping Fox News host Tucker Carlson and citing the number of votes he received in his losing bid for governor, Culp delivered what may prove to be the most important line in the race.
"I am the only candidate up here that is endorsed by President Donald Trump," he said.
Trump, who has dubbed himself "the king of endorsements," has used his imprimatur to influence races across the country — at least 145, according to Axios — to an extent never before seen after leaving the White House. But his endorsement of Culp, who didn't live in the district when he declared his candidacy and has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, has frustrated GOP leaders in the district and the other Trump-aligned candidates who sought the former president's backing.
"That felt like the most important thing in the campaign, for all of us," said Gibson, who traveled to a rally in Arizona and to Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to try to meet the former president. "It really seemed like getting the Trump endorsement was going to be the key to winning the race."
The only GOP candidate not at the debate hosted by the Republican Liberty Caucus of Washington — a group described by its chairman as "the surgical strike team of the Republican Party" — was Rep. Dan Newhouse. The four-term congressman from Sunnyside has had a target on his back since he voted to impeach Trump for inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The former president has thrown his support behind primary challengers to the 10 House Republicans who voted for his impeachment, four of whom have chosen to retire rather than face a Trump-backed opponent in Republican primaries. But Washington's unusual "jungle primary" system, in which the top two finishers advance to November's general election regardless of party, makes the 4th district race a unique test of Trump's influence.
Despite most of the county GOP leaders in the district calling for his resignation after the impeachment vote, Newhouse has stayed in the race, betting he can hang onto the seat he won with two-thirds of the vote in 2020, outperforming Trump by more than eight percentage points in the district.
The sole Democrat in the race, Yakima-based businessman Doug White, also participated in the May 7 debate and is likely to capture a significant minority of votes in the primary, further complicating the seven-man race. If the Trump-aligned candidates split Republican voters angered by Newhouse's impeachment vote, the top two vote-getters could advance to November's general election with unusually small shares of the electorate.
"We're going through a fundamental realignment in our politics right now," said Cornell Clayton, professor of government at Washington State University. "I've never seen something like this in my lifetime. ... I think it's really difficult to predict how they're going to shake out."
Wary that too many similar candidates could split the pro-Trump vote, the Benton County Republican Party kicked off a "pre-endorsement" process aimed at winnowing the crowded field. A five-person nominating committee held two-hour interviews with each of Newhouse's five GOP challengers, then made a recommendation to the party's precinct committee officers at a Feb. 3 meeting.
After the board recommended Klippert, a Benton County Sheriff's deputy, 58.1% of the 74 officers voted to endorse him. Sessler placed second with 27%, followed by Culp with 6.8%, Newhouse with 5.4% and Garcia with 2.7%. Gibson received no votes.
"The reason we did that was we were trying to tell the Trump people, from the grassroots, who we wanted," said Benton County GOP Chairman Mike Massey, who provided the vote results to The Spokesman-Review. "Brad Klippert has a lot of goodwill with the voters, and that's the thing that the Trump camp could never see."
Less than a week later, Culp took to Facebook Live to announce he had received Trump's "Complete and Total Endorsement."
Klippert said he traveled to Trump's rally in Arizona in January and "was supposed to have a face-to-face meeting" with the former president, but after the meeting didn't happen, he chose not to travel to Mar-a-Lago for one of the frequent fundraisers where candidates clamor for Trump's attention.
"I wanted to earn his endorsement rather than beg for it, which I had heard that some others had done," Klippert said. "Obviously, President Trump does not have the time to personally vet each of those candidates. He counts on others. I think if he knew the true character and the true history of all the candidates, he might change his mind."
Christopher Gergen, Culp's campaign manager, said neither he nor Culp ever appealed directly for Trump's endorsement.
"There was no real 'process,'" Gergen said. "We made exactly zero phone calls to Mr. Trump's team or staff or anything. We never went to Mar-a-Lago until February, after Mr. Culp got the endorsement."
In the video announcing Trump's endorsement, Culp described sitting at home with his wife and getting an unexpected call from Trump. Sessler, who said he met with Trump informally at the Palm Beach resort, called the Culp campaign's claim that Culp didn't lobby for Trump's endorsement "a lie."
"That's not how it works," Sessler said. "I didn't get to go to Mar-a-Lago just because I called the right person. I got to go to Mar-a-Lago because I was invited by the right person. That's the only way you get there."
After Culp got Trump's endorsement, Sessler said, part of him wished he had been "more aggressive" in courting the former president's support, but that would mean spending more money to attend fundraisers. Federal candidates and committees have spent $1.3 million to hold events at Mar-a-Lago, The New York Times reported.
"I just didn't think the endorsements were for sale," he said. "I don't think Trump is selling them, per se, but the people around him that are allowing people to get there are not doing things the way I think they should."
Despite missing out on the big prize, Sessler has secured endorsements from other prominent figures in Trump's orbit, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and political consultant Roger Stone, who sent a pair of his favorite Italian sunglasses to Sessler's teenage son, Sessler said.
Gibson said he went to Mar-a-Lago last November as a guest of Rick Grenell — who became the country's first openly gay cabinet official when Trump appointed him acting Director of National Intelligence in 2020 — expecting a personal introduction to the former president at an event sponsored by an LGBT Republican group. While that didn't happen, Gibson said, Trump was present when Log Cabin Republicans President Charles Moran ended a speech saying, "We must elect candidates like Corey Gibson to Congress."
"I definitely knew that I wanted to get the Trump endorsement because I'm a huge fan of his policies," said Gibson, who is gay. "At the same time, I also was very disillusioned with the process of getting the endorsement.
"It wasn't Trump, but it's the the new swamp that swirls around him, and people wanting all these consulting fees in order to get the process going to get endorsed by Trump," he added. "People are just profiting off of their relationship to him."
Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, is a Trump ally who endorsed Gibson and invited him to the Arizona rally in January. She said the former president has called her several times to talk about Arizona candidates, but she hasn't discussed the Washington race with him.
"He's very busy," Ward said. "He's got a lot on his mind. He's looking at the whole country, trying to build a new kind of Republican Party. Now, will he be perfect in the people he endorses? Probably not."
Joe Kent — a Trump-endorsed candidate challenging southwest Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who also backed impeachment after the Capitol riot — told The New York Times that Trump had told him, "I need to see polling, I need to see funding, I need to see you make a name for yourself."
Gergen said he had "no idea" how Culp got the endorsement, but his campaign commissioned polls from GOP-aligned pollster Spry Strategies in December and April that showed Culp leading all candidates and narrowly winning a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Newhouse.
Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University who studies public opinion surveys, noted the April survey's sample of 730 voters skewed old — more than 51% of respondents were older than 65 — and said because the candidate preference questions didn't indicate party affiliation, it would likely underestimate support for a generic Democrat. According to the polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight, Donovan added, Spry Strategies' polls have overestimated support for Trump, which suggests they may also overestimate support for Culp.
"We're focused on the voters in Washington's 4th Congressional District, and that has always been my motto," Gergen said. "Don't go chase endorsements. The only endorsement you need is the endorsement of the voters."
While Gergen said "celebrity endorsements" are "more of an ego play," he admitted Trump's endorsement benefits Culp.
"We are deeply grateful that Mr. Trump chose Loren, and it would have really complicated our race had he not chosen Loren," Gergen said. "And I imagine it made it complicated for several of our opponents. But at the end of the day, Mr. Culp did not go and chase that endorsement."
A spokesman for Trump, Taylor Budowich, did not respond to questions about the endorsement process.
Garcia, who grew up in Sunnyside and said he worked on Newhouse's farm as a teenager, said he would have liked to get Trump's endorsement but didn't actively seek it. Instead, he said, his path to victory depends on voters who don't feel that either party has listened to them, including the Latinos who make up 40% of the district's population.
"I'm a big supporter of President Trump — don't get me wrong — but I wasn't worried about getting President Trump's endorsement," Garcia said. "Because I know that how I'm going to win this race, it wasn't going to be because of President Trump."
While Trump's endorsement likely gives Culp some advantage, campaign finance disclosures from the first quarter of 2022 showed him lagging behind Newhouse, Sessler and White.
"I personally thought it would have a bigger impact than it has," said Mike McKee, chairman of the Grant County GOP. "I would think that somebody with a Trump endorsement should have a huge quarter in fundraising, and that was not the case with Mr. Culp."
Gergen downplayed the importance of spending before the primary and said the Culp campaign has ramped up fundraising since filing its campaign finance reports for the first quarter of 2022, which showed $191,000 in total fundraising and only about $23,000 on hand.
By comparison, Newhouse reported about $928,000 on hand.
"I think everybody that believes in the America first message wants a Trump endorsement, and everybody understands how powerful it can be," said Ward, the Arizona GOP chairwoman. "But it also isn't the be-all, end-all for every campaign, especially in these races that have a lot of people vying for a spot."
Filing week for Washington elections begins Monday and candidates must officially file with the Secretary of State's Office by Friday to appear on the Aug. 2 primary ballot. Registered voters can vote for any candidate in the open primary, with the top two finishers in each race advancing to the Nov. 8 general election.