'Free speech' provocateur has built a militia-flavored political career while attracting even more extreme elements, but state GOP officials remain mum about his prospects.
Like a number of far-right political candidates around the country, Joey Gibson – founder of Patriot Prayer, the organization behind a string of “free speech” protests along the West Coast that have attracted radical white supremacists and antifascists, often in violent combat – presents a thorny problem for the Republican Party in Washington state.
The nature of the problem was on public display on May Day in Seattle earlier this month, when Gibson held one of his rallies amid annual left-wing parades and protests in the downtown area. Eventually, he talked about his campaign for the U.S. Senate as a Republican, announced earlier this year.
As usual, Gibson and his entourage were accompanied by a large phalanx of far-right “Proud Boys,” who shared the stage with him most of the day, and to whom Gibson himself openly pledged his enduring loyalty.
“I will never turn my back on you. There’s so much pressure on me right now, it’s constant, people all the time. They’re like, ‘Disavow them, disavow them, distance yourself, distance yourself.’
“Here’s the thing, though: We cannot sell each other out! We cannot sell each other out simply because I want to win the campaign! Simply because I want to do something for myself. We gotta support one another. We gotta continue to hold each other up. Because I’ll tell you what – do you know how many people sold me out?”
He added: “How happy do you think they would be if I came out and I disavowed the Proud Boys? Huh? How happy would they be? Because that’s what they want. They want to divide us.”
Over the course of his relatively brief activist career, Gibson’s Patriot/militia movement-oriented organization has walked an ambiguous line in terms of the “free speech” it claimed to be defending from the violence of the extreme left. As a result, in addition to the masked black-bloc “antifa” opposition drawn to the events, a number of outright neo-Nazis, skinheads, white nationalists and other far-right extremists have come out and participated as well.
This reached its apotheosis in June 2017, when Gibson held a rally in downtown Portland less than a week after an alt-right-influenced man slashed two people to death on commuter train in the city.
In other states where far-right extremists have run as Republicans – such as Illinois and California – state GOP officials have taken steps to distance themselves from the would-be candidates. However, both those men were outright neo-Nazis, while Gibson’s affiliation with the Patriot/militia movement may not be seen as quite as problematic among Washington state Republicans; after all, the No. 3-ranking GOP member of the state House is Matthew Shea, who has a long history of close involvement with the Patriot movement.
Officially speaking, party officials are mum, unable to decide whether to denounce his campaign for the nomination or to embrace it. What they have done so far is simply to pay it no attention, apparently in hopes it would go away and simply lose at the polls during the state’s August 7 primary election.
For awhile, it appeared as if this position would be problematic, since Gibson was the first person to announce his plans to run as a Republican in late February, and remained the only announced GOP candidate for the next couple of months. The incumbent three-term senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, also filed early, while a handful of third-party candidates announced their campaigns.
However, as last Friday's filing deadline approached, more candidates added their names to the Republican slate for the Senate seat. Finally, late Friday afternoon, former state party chairperson Susan Hutchison stepped up to the plate and announced that she was throwing her hat into the ring.
Though there are now officially 12 candidates filing as Republicans for the primary election, only a handful of them appear to be serious candidates. Some of those listed include Rocque “Rocky” De La Fuente, a San Diego entrepreneur and oft-failed political candidate who has filed to run for the Senate seats in California and Florida as well; and “GoodSpaceGuy,” the legal nom de plume of a Seattle man named Michael Nelson who perennially runs for offices around the state and promotes a space-exploration agenda. There are also several otherwise anonymous candidates who have no websites or online presence.
The serious candidates, besides Hutchison and Gibson, include Keith Swank of Puyallup, Dave Bryant of Bonney Lake, and Matthew D. Heines of Redmond. However, of those three, only Bryant (who emphasizes his background as a Navy veteran) appears to be an ordinary mainstream Republican. None of them has ever held any kind of elected office in the state.
Heines’ out-of-far-right-field platform, as elucidated at his website, includes establishing English as the official national language, as well as forbidding the U.S. government from borrowing money. Swank, meanwhile, also emphasizes his military and police-force service in his pitch, but describes himself as a “constitutional conservative” who emphasizes “border security” and “Second Amendment” issues, as well as promoting tax cuts and eliminating the debt simultaneously.
Swank, moreover, is strident in his rhetoric attacking liberals. “We need to understand that the left is not our friend,” he writes. “We can’t just debate issues and then go out to dinner with them and drink cocktails. The left is out to fundamentally change this country. They want to do away with our rights and responsibilities and control our destiny. We cannot allow this to happen.”
None of the candidates besides Hutchison — who previously ran for King County Executive in 2009, but lost by a wide margin — have the larger statewide name recognition that Gibson enjoys. However, the question that will be decided in the election is whether the recognition that Gibson has garnered, mostly through news coverage of his “free speech” events, is a net positive. There have not been any polls released in the race yet.
What’s worked well for Gibson so far is that his Patriot Prayer events, including an “open carry” event in Seattle on Sunday, have also turned out to be fundraising opportunities for his Senate campaign. Near the end of the May Day rally, he talked to the crowd and asked them to use an app that would help them easily donate to his campaign.
“I’m gonna need your money, the small amounts, because Maria Cantwell’s getting maxed out, a lot of the donations that she can get, because she works for the elitists,” he said.
However, Hutchison's announcement makes her the immediate favorite among the GOP competitors, given her deep connections within the party apparatus and her longtime connections to President Trump. It also sets up an interesting rivalry within the party itself.
“The alt-right vs. all-Trump primary the WA State Republicans have ahead of them will be fascinating to watch,” observed Democratic Party spokesperson Ansley Lacitis in a text message to the Seattle Times.