From Wellstone to Weeks: The Gonzo Election in Minnesota’s Second Congressional District

How the death of a third party candidate threw an otherwise stable race into chaos.

Until last week, no one was paying a lot of attention to the race in Minnesota’s second congressional district, where I happen to live. It pits incumbent Democrat Angie Craig, a businesswoman and the first lesbian mother to serve in Congress, against Republican Tyler Kistner, a former Marine, in a suburban district on the southern outskirts of the Twin Cities. 

Moderate Republican John Kline held this seat from 2002-2016 when he saw the winds of extremism blowing through his party and chose to retire. The same furor that led to an Electoral College win for Donald Trump in 2016 resulted in his mini-me, Jason Lewis, beating Craig in a three-way race by less than two points. Craig ran against Lewis again in 2018 and won by over five points. In other words, this is one of those quintessential suburban swing districts, which is also demonstrated by the fact that, in presidential races, it went for McCain in 2008, Obama in 2012, and Trump in 2016—all by the slimmest of margins.

In 2020, Craig has been running ahead of Kistner, with Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rating the seat “likely Democrat,” while the Cook Political Report has it “lean Democrat.” 

But then last week Adam Weeks, representing the Legal Marijuana Now Party in the race, died suddenly at the age of 38. The cause of his death is unknown at the moment—a friend said that he was in bad health after a skiing accident and struggled with an addiction. 

Lest anyone assume that the Legal Marijuana Now Party would, by definition, be left-wing, Weeks was a Trump supporter who had been talked into running by what a friend called “borderline QAnon-type guys” on a three-point platform: (1) end the war on drugs, (2) legalize marijuana, and (3) weed out corruption. In other words, his candidacy resembled the attempts by Republicans to get Kanye West on the presidential ballot in some states. 

The issue raised by the death of Weeks is that, after the 2018 election, the Legal Marijuana Now Party met Minnesota’s requirements for being declared a “major party.” That means that a law passed by Democrats following the death of Senator Paul Wellstone has been triggered for the first time. 

Wellstone was killed in a plane crash just eleven days before the 2002 election. According to Minnesota law at the time, ballots cast for him prior to his death could not be counted for Walter Mondale, who agreed to step in as the Democratic nominee. Republican Norm Coleman went on to beat Mondale by just over two points. 

Demonstrating the pitfalls of legislation via anecdote, Democrats passed a bill in 2013 that would delay an election until February if a candidate from a major party dies within 79 days of an election. In light of that, MN Secretary of State Steve Simon issued a statement on the current situation in the second congressional district, saying that “the law is clear on what happens next. If a major party nominee dies within 79 days of Election Day; a special election will be held for that office on the second Tuesday of February (February 9, 2021).” In the meantime, the seat for the second district will remain open from the end of the lame duck session in December until after the special election in February. So when the House convenes in January 2021, the second district will not be represented.

Rep. Craig issued a statement suggesting that “there are still many outstanding questions” and urged voters to “continue to vote for the entire ballot, including for this congressional race.” Those questions stem from the fact that the Minnesota law hasn’t faced legal scrutiny and contradicts a federal statute which requires that House elections be held on “the Tuesday next after the 1st Monday in November.”

If the Minnesota law is upheld, it is unclear if the delay would boost the candidacy of Tyler Kistner, who has been outraised by Craig five to one. Kistner failed to report his fundraising totals last quarter, indicating that he had not raised or spent the $5,000 threshold required to file. For all of their talk about winning in Minnesota, Republicans have been ignoring the suburbs and focusing all of their attention on rural areas where the party is already strong. But all of that could change if this becomes the only contest on everyone’s radar in February.

In the unlikely event that the presidential race ends in an Electoral College tie or some other Trump-manufactured chaos sends the election to the House, there is a chance that this seat could become relevant. If that should happen, each congressional delegation gets one vote, with the current partisan split in Minnesota at 5-3 in favor of Democrats. That becomes a 4-3 advantage if this seat remains open. But there are two other congressional races in Minnesota that are currently rated as toss-ups: one Republican and one Democrat. If both went to Republicans, their delegation would have a 4-3 advantage and Minnesota could go for Trump, regardless of the popular vote in the state. 

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.