Weed candidates upend bid for state Senate control in Minnesota

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The outcome of Minnesota’s elections could be influenced by a new and unlikely phenomenon: third-party candidates running as champions of marijuana legalization.

A pair of pro-pot parties are guaranteed a slot on the ballot for the first time in 2020 and are fielding an unprecedented number of candidates for state and federal offices.

Some of the candidates, however, seem to be Republicans in weed clothing, and Democrats allege it’s a deliberate GOP effort to confuse voters and take away votes from their candidates. The recent death of one of these candidates drew attention to these would-be lawmakers and kicked the issue into the courts in the final weeks of the election.

The biggest prize at stake is control of the state Senate, with Republicans now holding a thin 35-32 majority. Over the last two years, Republicans have been able to torpedo the policy agenda of Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and the Democrat-controlled House, including efforts to loosen the state’s marijuana laws. In at least three key Senate races, the weed contenders have ties to or voiced support for the Republican party. The outcome of a pair of competitive U.S. House races also could be affected by the presence of weed legalization candidates on the ballot.

“If we end up not winning a majority, there’s a very strong chance it would be because of these pot party candidates who end up siphoning votes away from the DFL,” said Ken Martin, chair of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “It’s really … despicable that the Republicans would resort to essentially cheating to win an election and keep the majority.”

A provision of Minnesota law grants “major party” status to any party that gets at least 5 percent of the vote in a statewide election. In 2018, two different pro-legalization parties hit that mark. Now anyone running under the banner of those parties is automatically entitled to a slot on the ballot if they pay the $100 filing fee without meeting the biggest hurdle: collecting hundreds of signatures. The Legal Marijuana Now party’s candidate for state auditor secured 5.3 percent of the vote in 2018. The Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate for attorney general won 5.7 percent of the vote.

State Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan scoffed at the suggestion that Republicans are recruiting candidates to run under the pot legalization parties, calling Martin’s allegation “reckless and grossly untrue,” in a statement to POLITICO.

“These continued last minute desperate attempts to fabricate stories show just how desperate the Democratic Party is becoming,” Carnahan said.

Altogether, 29 candidates filed to run as candidates for the two pro-legalization parties this cycle. When one of them, Adam Weeks, the Legal Marijuana Now party candidate in the 2nd Congressional District, died recently, Minnesota law dictated that the election had to be delayed until February because his death occurred within 79 days of Election Day.

Democratic incumbent Rep. Angie Craig sued in federal court to force the election to proceed on Nov. 3. Her argument: Federal law requires voting on that date, and it trumps state law. Oral arguments were held Wednesday, and a ruling is expected imminently. On Friday, a federal judge backed that argument, ordering the election to proceed as originally planned. Craig’s Republican challenger Tyler Kistner said he will appeal.

There’s also a Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate running for the 7th Congressional District seat held by Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson. The 15-term incumbent, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, survived in 2016, even though President Donald Trump won his western Minnesota district by 31 points. Peterson faces a formidable challenger in former state senator and Lieutenant Gov. Michelle Fischbach.

The Twitter account of the pot party’s candidate, Rae Hart Anderson, features a picture of Trump and wife Melania and is filled with invective for Democrats.

“DFL doesn’t have a PARTY anymore,” she wrote in a recent post, “just plots & plans to fill graveyards w/those who won’t threaten, brawl & remove American Values.”

Anderson couldn’t be reached for comment. The phone number listed on her candidate filing: 999-999-9999.

But the biggest potential effect of the pot party candidates is on control of the state Senate.

While most of the weed candidates appear to genuinely support marijuana legalization, the conspicuous displays of GOP enthusiasm on social media by a few contenders has raised suspicions that they’re also happy to lure votes from Democrats.

In Senate District 27, for example, Tyler Becvar is running on the Legal Marijuana Now ticket in a district that Democratic state Sen. Dan Sparks won by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016. Sparks faces a rematch with his Republican opponent this year.

Becvar’s Facebook account is filled with posts applauding Trump and mocking Democrats, according to screen shots obtained by POLITICO.

Becvar acknowledged that he’s a Trump supporter but denied that he’s only running to siphon votes away from Democrats or that he was coerced into the campaign by Republicans. He also said that he voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

“Why not? F— it,” Becvar said of his decision to run. “It cost me a hundred bucks. I’ve spent a hundred bucks on a lot dumber stuff.”

Becvar was also ambivalent about whether he supports marijuana legalization, citing concerns about the experience of friends who have visited Colorado, which became the first state in the country to enact legal recreational sales in 2014.

“Everybody’s kind of a total stoner,” Becvar said. “Don’t get me wrong. There’s your productive stoners and then your stoners that don’t do a damn thing.”

In Senate District 5, Robyn Smith is running as a Legal Marijuana Now candidate. Four years ago, Republican Justin Eichorn won the Senate seat by less than 600 votes over the incumbent DFLer.

Smith’s social media presence is largely devoted to applauding the policies of the Trump administration. She told the Minnesota Reformer, a local online publication, earlier this year that she was recruited to run by a Republican but declined to name the person.

Smith told POLITICO that she’s not doing any more interviews.

In Senate District 20, Jason Hoschette is running as a Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate. Four years ago, Republican candidate Rich Draheim won the seat by a 52-48 percent margin.

Hoschette’s Republican ties aren’t as clear cut. The Minnesota Reformer reported that a couple of social media posts showed someone with that name attending sporting events with a Senate GOP staffer and local party chair, but those posts were subsequently deleted. Hoschette didn’t respond to a phone call requesting comment.

Just how directly Republicans have been involved in recruiting candidates is difficult to discern. While Carnahan denied involvement, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka didn’t respond to requests for comment. Other top Senate Republicans also ignored inquiries.

Sammy McCarty, a marijuana legalization advocate who has never run for public office, said he met with Gazelka at the state Capitol in January and was encouraged to run as a legalization candidate against Democratic Sen. Gregory Clausen in a tightly contested district.

“It didn’t make sense to me. I was dumbfounded,” said McCarty, who says he’s a Democrat and doesn’t use marijuana, even though he advocates for its legalization. “I really think it was to take votes away from Greg Clausen.”

Democratic House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler has introduced legislation that would fully legalize marijuana in Minnesota. The state allows only people with certain medical conditions to buy the drug legally. But Winkler said any changes to the state’s marijuana policies are a non-starter with a Republican majority in the Senate.

“They used it to obstruct most things that we tried to pass, including very basic, widely supported changes to our medical cannabis program,” Winkler said. “They wouldn’t do anything.”

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