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How marijuana legalization party candidates could decide control of the Minnesota Senate

Numerous legislative battleground races include pot party candidates, some with tenuous connections to the legalization movement, causing some DFLers to believe the candidates could simply be there to hurt Democrats.

pro-marijuana sign
DFLers think it likely that Republicans will make pitches to DFLers in tight state Senate races — not for Republicans, but on behalf of candidates from the marijuana parties as a way of siphoning off potential Democratic voters.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A year ago, when the Minnesota secretary of state said he would provide presidential primary voter lists to all of the state’s major political parties, state DFL chair Ken Martin was worried.

Martin thought the lists should be distributed so that the only the DFL would receive the DFL list and only the GOP would receive the GOP list. By Secretary of State Steve Simon’s reading, however, every major party — including the state’s two newest major parties, Legal Marijuana Now and Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis — would receive the lists, valuable data that include the names of voters of both parties and which party they favored.

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
At the time, Martin worried that the pro-marijuana legalization parties would use the lists to solicit DFL votes for the new parties. Now, however, DFLers think it just as likely that Republicans will do something else: make pitches to DFLers in tight state Senate races — not for Republicans, but on behalf of candidates from the marijuana parties as a way of siphoning off potential Democratic voters. 

In at least four swing Senate races and one battleground state House race, pot party candidates have made the general election ballot, with three of them having only tenuous connections to the legalization movement. And since the marijuana parties are more likely to capture DFL-leaning voters, that could make the difference between the DFL capturing the Senate and the GOP retaining its narrow, 35-32 lead there.

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Call it the price of success. Once the two marijuana parties achieved major party status in 2018 — by dint of Legal Marijuana Now candidate Michael Ford getting 5.28 percent of the vote in the State Auditor race and Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidate Noah M. Johnson getting 5.71 percent of the vote in the Attorney General’s race — they no longer need go to the trouble of gathering petition signatures to get on the ballot. 

At the same time, however, the new designation meant they lost control over who can run under their banner. That has led to what a founder of the legalization movement in Minnesota termed “Republican trolls” using the party banners to file as candidates. “I’m annoyed,” said Oliver Steinberg, who founded Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis in 1968 and is the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate. 

He said there is no record of the candidates in the state Senate and congressional races being involved in the legalization movement and several have links to the GOP. 

A tough map for the DFL

Taking the Senate from the Republicans was already going to be difficult task for the DFL. Republicans hold a 35-32 lead in the chamber, there aren’t a lot of possible seats for DFL candidates to flip. That means any close race could be difference-maker, as the western suburbs Senate District 44 was in 2016. DFL targets this year include that seat, along with GOP held seats in Senate District 56 in the southern Twin Cities suburbs; Districts 34 in the northwest suburbs; District 39 in Washington County; and Districts 25 and 26 in Rochester.

Beyond that, the DFL will have to reach into more-rural areas. Three of those possible swing districts currently have GOP incumbents while one is held by the DFL, which the party must hold if it wants a chance to take over the Senate. All have legalization party candidates on the ballot:

  • In Senate District 5, GOP incumbent Justin Eichorn is facing DFL nominee Rita Albrecht, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis (GLC) nominee Dennis Barsness and Legal Marijuana Now (LMN) nominee Robyn Smith.
  • In SD14, GOP incumbent Jerry Relph is facing DFL nominee Aric Putnam and LMN nominee Jaden Partlow.
  • In SD20, GOP incumbent Rich Draheim is facing DFL nominee Jon Olson and GLC nominee Jason Hoschette.
  • In SD27, DFL incumbent Dan Sparks is facing GOP nominee Gene Dornink and LMN nominee Tyler Becvar.

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The legalization parties pose less of a problem for DFLers in the House. The party currently holds a 75-59 advantage in the chamber, and only one battleground race has a marijuana party nominee who could cause problems for Democrats. 

That would be in District 55A, where DFL Rep. Brad Tabke will face a rematch of his 2018 election against Republican Erik Mortensen. In 2018, a strong year for the DFL in the suburbs, Tabke took the district from the GOP, but only by three and a half points over Mortensen. This year, Legal Marijuana Now nominee Ryan Martin will also be on the ballot with Tabke and Mortensen.

State Sen. Justin Eichorn
State Sen. Justin Eichorn
But that’s pretty much it for the House. Why more problems in the Senate than the House? Two theories: The House DFL leadership has spent the last year making inroads with legalization advocates, conducting a statewide information gathering tour and sponsoring bills to legalize and regulate marijuana — one of which has the provision  important to legalization advocates: the authority to grow their own plants. Meanwhile, the Senate DFL was unable to make similar progress toward a bill that was blocked by the GOP majority.

The other theory: The candidacies in Senate battleground districts have less to do with legalization and more to do with traditional GOP vs. DFL politics — that the pot party candidates in those districts are there to siphon votes away from Democrats in tight races. 

GOP campaign leaders deny any involvement, though a June article in the Minnesota Reformer detailed GOP connections to a handful of legalization candidates, including Smith in SD5, Hoschette in SD20 and Becvar in SD27, as well as Rae Hart Anderson, who is running for Congress in the 7th Congressional District.

Earlier in the summer, Martin said his fears about the state providing presidential primary voting lists to all of the major parties have been realized. “Once they achieve major party status, anyone can run, and clearly the Republicans decided to run all these candidates for this spot and most of them don’t even favor legalization and are just running to siphon votes away from the Democratic party,” he said. “If we don’t win the majority back, you can look at those races and look at how much the pot party took and that’s going to be the difference.”

The DFL also unsuccessfully challenged a state law that requires listing the new legalization party candidates first, and the DFL candidates last, on all ballots.

‘Maybe they’re for freedom’

Sen. Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, was the sponsor of a legalization bill in the Senate and is a leader of the DFL campaign committee. She said she thinks the path to legalization is smoother with a DFL majority in the Senate, so it makes little sense for legalization parties to make that more difficult. That is why she said she thinks the candidates in battleground districts are simply there to hurt DFL candidates.

“If anything it’s a Republican ploy and Democrats can smell who’s behind it from a mile away,” she said. 

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But López Franzen said she thinks the DFL has strong candidates in those districts and is optimistic that the legalization party candidates won’t be a factor in elections that have bigger issues in play.“We’re not fighting the marijuana parties, we’re fighting Trump,” she said.

Hoschette and Anderson do not have the official support of Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis. But Smith and Becvar have since been endorsed by Legal Marijuana Now. Tim Davis, the chair of the new party said that while DFLers are more supportive of legalization than Republicans, he thinks both parties have ignored what a majority of American want.

Sen. Melisa López Franzen
“Our goal is to get people elected and to change the laws in the state,” Davis said. “And the Democrats and the Republicans are not doing the job. They don’t want to listen to people who smoke reefer and they never have.” He called legalization a racial justice issue because drug prohibition was aimed at, and did more damage, to Blacks and hispanics than whites.

“We’ll take votes from the Republicans or the Democrats, it doesn’t matter,” Davis said. 

Even so, he acknowledged that some of the candidates who filed under the banner of the legalization parties aren’t motivated by the issue. “Some of these people are Republicans and they did it to distract from the Democrats. That’s pure politics,” Davis said. 

While he was unaware that the party had endorsed Smith and Becvar, he said “maybe they’re for freedom.”

And he had a two word answer to DFLers who think the legalization parties are being used to hurt DFL chances of winning the Senate: “Tough shit.”

“If the Democrats lose and we get more Republicans, well the people of Minnesota get what they deserve,” he said. “And yeah, we get what we deserve but we’ll still be fighting for legalization. We’ll still be fighting after the bill passes because I know it’s not going to be good enough.”

Steinberg, who is not the current chair of Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis but is considered a founder of the movement in Minnesota, was more concerned than Davis about the impact of the questionable candidates on the cause.

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“It is a tremendous political blunder to let your enemies take over your establishment,” Steinberg said, adding that he was “sad to hear” that the other legalization party had endorsed Smith and Becvar. 

He said he has no doubt that the movement would be better off with DFLers running the Senate. “I personally think the entire state would be better off if obstructionist Republicans were out of power,” he said. 

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, led the effort to convince legalization voters that would be better served by voting for pro-legalization DFLers than either of the new parties. A statewide tour in the fall of 2019 led to the introduction of a legalization and regulation bill this past spring, but the session was disrupted by the pandemic before the bill could be voted upon. “Our cannabis engagement project for the Minnesota House DFL went quite well,” Winkler said.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler
State Rep. Ryan Winkler
While Winkler says he is pleased his caucus does not face challenges from legalization advocates beyond the Tabke race, he said he doesn’t see how the Senate challenges further the cause of legalization. He has had conversations with some party leaders to “make sure they were in agreement with us that it is the Republican Senate that is holding us back and the strategic play is to flip it. I’m not sure there’s a total alignment between their goals and their tactics.”

That said, he agreed with López Franzen that there are bigger things on voters’ minds this year. “All issues are gonna be blips next to COVID,” he said.

Gina Countryman, a Republican strategist not directly involved in state Senate campaigns this election cycle, said she thinks the reason more third-party candidates are running in key Senate races is because that’s where the action is — that’s where the parties are fighting it out for control prior to vital redistricting fights next year.

“Outside the presidential race, the big game really is in the state Senate. That’s where the fun is,” she said. 

And while she said she isn’t aware of a coordinated GOP effort to recruit candidates for legalization parties, she said anyone who tries it should be aware that it can backfire. Her example is then-U.S. Rep. Bill Luther, who in 2002 was accused of setting up a third party candidate in his race against GOP nominee John Kline.

“People who play that game, it is playing with fire,” she said. “It is too cute by half.”