In two pivotal races for control of the Minnesota Senate, candidates running under the pro-marijuana banner pulled in thousands of votes despite largely invisible campaigns. Now, those votes are expected to be the difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates in those races.
And in southern Minnesota's First Congressional District, DFLer Dan Feehan lost by roughly 13,400 votes in a race where a little known marijuana candidate drew more than 21,000 votes.
Democrats say marijuana legalization candidates, some with ties to Republican politics, pulled away votes from their candidates in key races across the state on Tuesday, possibly helping Republicans maintain control of the Minnesota Senate and propel Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn to a second term in Congress. But Republicans point to other situations where DFL candidates appeared to benefit from the third-party hopefuls.
Absentee ballots were still being tallied in critical swing races on Thursday, but the likelihood of continued divided government meant the whole reason Minnesota's two major marijuana parties exist — to legalize recreational use — slipped out of their grasp for at least another two years.
DFL Gov. Tim Walz supports legalized recreational marijuana and was hoping Democrats would flip the state Senate and maintain control of the state House, making it possible to pass a statewide proposal.
"I would hate to think that somebody who was a supporter [of legalization] lost because of us," said Dennis Schuller, with the Legal Marijuana Now Party. "But politics ... it's something we don't control. We don't control the democratic process and there's going to be casualties."
Political operatives in both parties said they were surprised by how well marijuana party candidates performed this year.
Legal Marijuana Now extended its major party status by getting more than 5% of the vote in the statewide election for U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, five other states, including South Dakota, passed ballot measures on Election Day to legalize recreational and medical marijuana. Medical marijuana, but not recreational, is allowed in Minnesota.
"It's just a continuation of what's been going on for a number of years cross the country," Legal Marijuana Now Senate candidate Kevin O'Connor said. Both he and Schuller acknowledged that some of their party's candidates who ran this year might align with Republicans or Democrats on other issues.
"If they tell me they are pro-cannabis, OK. I don't really care where you stand on guns or abortion," Schuller said. "I don't really try to influence people."
Democrats have said it's not just a matter of candidates leaning Republican, but that they were recruited to hurt DFLers' chances.
In the Second Congressional District, Legal Marijuana Candidate Adam Charles Weeks got 24,642 votes. Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig beat Republican challenger Tyler Kistner by 9,386 votes in that district.
Weeks died in September but his name remained on the ballot. After his death, Weeks' close friend shared a voice mail with the Star Tribune in which Weeks said Republicans asked him to run hoping he would "pull votes away" from Craig.
A memo from the state DFL Party this summer highlighted a half dozen candidates in swing races — from Congress to the Legislature — where candidates running under the pro-marijuana banner had ties to Republican politics or posted conservative positions on their social media feeds.
In St. Cloud's Senate District 14, neither the Republican or Democratic candidates in the race had seen Legal Marijuana Now candidate Jaden Partlow on the campaign trail, yet he pulled in more than 3,000 votes Tuesday. Meanwhile DFL challenger Aric Putnam was leading Republican Sen. Jerry Relph by just a few hundred votes on Thursday.
Democratic Rep. Brad Tabke, of Shakopee, was trailing Republican Erik Mortensen by 560 votes. He said he believes Legal Marijuana Now candidate Ryan Martin, who got 1,705 votes, is part of the reason. He said legalization candidates' names appear first on the ballot, which helps them.
Tyler Becvar, the Legal Marijuana Now candidate in Senate District 27, posted a video on his Facebook page in May promoting the Republican candidate in that race, Gene Dornink, who beat DFL Sen. Dan Sparks by 1,902 votes. Becvar won more than 2,500 votes.
Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo said it's actually Sparks who benefited from Becvar. He pointed to results for House District 27B, which makes up half of Senate District 27. No marijuana candidates were on the ballot in the House district or the presidential race, and the Republicans had higher numbers in those contests. But in the state Senate, U.S. Senate and U.S. House races where marijuana candidates were in the mix, he said GOP candidates there took a hit.
"There's a stereotype that they are all liberal hippies when in reality, you have some conservative Libertarian types who are pretty open to that message," Garofalo said.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said his party's polling and models seem to show marijuana candidates siphoned more votes from Democrats. He said the DFL is looking into allegations that some marijuana candidates were offered financial support to run for office. There's an irony to the outcome, Martin added.
"The pot parties really are the biggest losers here ultimately," he said. "This has set back the movement of legalizing marijuana in the state."
Even if the DFL Party controlled the Legislature and decided to pass recreational marijuana legalization, Schuller said they still wouldn't be "dealing with the truth." He sees a fundamental difference between Democrats who want to regulate legalized cannabis and the Legal Marijuana Now Party that wants to lift regulations.
"It's not theirs to tax and regulate," he said. "Homegrown cannabis belongs as a protected liberty and a protected right."
The Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party also had a number of candidates on the ballot. In the First Congressional District, their candidate Bill Rood created a Facebook page with three likes and a single post in July. He did almost no campaigning in the district and still won more than 21,000 votes.
But Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party Chairman Chris Wright rejected the notion that their candidates were spoilers. "Somehow Republicans think they have an entitlement to power, and so do the DFL. ... They feel they are entitled to our votes," he said. "If someone loses because of our support, well, that just breaks my heart."
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042