Reefer Madness

In Minnesota, pro-marijuana third parties have siphoned votes from Democrats. Republicans seem to be orchestrating it. An object lesson in political cynicism.

Even though Joe Biden won a resounding victory against Donald Trump, Democrats, of course, didn’t fare well in down-ballot races. While they maintained their House majority, as of Friday, with15 races left to call, they had a disappointing net loss of six seats. 

As a result, finger-pointing to assign blame has begun. But as Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill said, “all politics is local.” When it comes to down-ballot races in Minnesota, he was right. 

A few weeks ago, the race in Minnesota’s 2nd congressional district made national news when Adam Weeks of the Legal Marijuana Now Party suddenly died but remained on the ballot and got almost 25,000 votes. Despite that, incumbent Democrat Angie Craig held on to her seat. 

But that isn’t the end of the story. Minnesota has eight congressional districts, and a candidate from one of two marijuana legalization parties was on the ballot in six of them. The pro-pot third-party candidates picked up from 17,000 to 38,000 votes in each district. The race where the cannabis candidate’s presence might have been decisive was in the 1st congressional district, where Republican Jim Hagedorn won reelection by about 11,000 votes, and Bill Rood from the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party garnered 21,000, presumably getting the majority of his support from voters who might have gone Democratic. 

In Minnesota’s 7th district, Democrat Colin Peterson—who had held the seat for 30 years—faced an uphill battle for reelection in a rural district that went for Trump by 31 points in 2016. Slater Johnson of the Legal Marijuana Now Party was on the ballot and won 17,000 votes. But Peterson lost by 46,000, so in the end, Johnson’s candidacy wasn’t decisive. 

Pro-marijuana legalization candidates were also on the ballot in several state senate races in Minnesota. Democrats only needed to flip two seats to gain a majority in the chamber but were thwarted in that effort by pro-pot candidates, who swung several tight races to the Republicans. 

The pro-marijuana candidates appear to have been part of an orchestrated effort by Republicans. The Star Tribune obtained a voicemail in which Weeks, prior to his death, said that Republicans asked him to run, hoping he would “pull votes away” from Craig. 

Tyler Becvar, who ran in senate district 27 on the Legal Marijuana Now Party ticket, openly acknowledged his support for Trump and, amazingly,  expressed ambivalence about his support for marijuana legalization. Last May, Becvar posted a video on Facebook promoting the Republican candidate in his race. That Republican beat the Democrat by 1,900 votes. Becvar garnered more than 2,500.

Robyn Smith, a Legal Marijuana Now candidate in the senate district 5 race, has not only praised Trump on social media, she admitted that she was recruited to run by a Republican, but refused to name the person. Another marijuana activist claims that Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka encouraged him to run as a legalization candidate in a tightly contested district. The activist declined, saying that “It didn’t make sense to me. I was dumbfounded.”

The state Democratic Party (DFL) issued a statement about these activities when reports first surfaced in June 2020.

Instead of running on the strength of their values and ideas, Republicans have recruited third party candidates in order to deceive Minnesotans and steal votes. Senator Paul Gazelka, Representative Kurt Daudt, and the Republican Party must level with the people of Minnesota – did you or your allies recruit these candidates or do you disavow these dirty tricks?

You don’t need dirty tricks if you’re running on an agenda that the people of Minnesota actually support. Elections should be decided in a fair, transparent election process around the issues that people care about in their communities. These types of underhanded and deceptive tactics are more akin to Russia than Minnesota.

Republican Tom Emmer’s 6th congressional district is one of the two that didn’t include a pro-marijuana candidate on the ticket. Given that he occupies the seat once held by Michele Bachmann, that race was never in doubt. But for the last year, Emmer chaired the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. At a minimum, he would have been aware of an orchestrated attempt in the state to promote pro-marijuana third party candidates to swing elections in favor of Republicans.  

The irony is that Minnesota Republicans have blocked efforts by Gov. Tim Walz and Democrats to legalize marijuana. With an assist from pro-marijuana candidates, Republicans maintained their majority in the state senate, ensuring that legalization is stalled for at least another two years. 

There are lessons in that for anyone interested in learning: (1) Republicans will cynically exploit anything to gain an electoral advantage, and (2) voting in a two-party system often requires strategy as much as passion. 

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Nancy LeTourneau

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