Politicians are used to courting a particular section of society come election time, but in a first for America, it may be the marijuana vote that decides the Florida governor’s race.
Democrats are pushing a statewide referendum on medical marijuana that supporters of the Republican Governor, Rick Scott, say threatens to tilt the race against him. Republicans have filed a legal challenge to keep it off the ballot.
Democrats and marijuana activists across the US are monitoring Florida’s quest to become the first state in the South to legalise some marijuana use, to see if the issue has a spillover effect that could offer a blueprint for the 2016 federal elections.
“It’s an issue that the Democrats can use to pump up the youth vote,” said Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant and pollster based in Gainesville, Florida. “The politics of it are dangerous for the GOP.”
In previous elections, Republicans benefited from social issues being on the ballot. During President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, 11 states voted on gay marriage bans. Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s top strategist, denied engineering the ballot drives but acknowledged the importance of social issues in fuelling Republican turnout.
The architect of Florida’s medical marijuana initiative, the Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, employs Charlie Crist, 57, the leading Democratic candidate for Florida governor, and serves as an adviser. No Democrat has won a governor’s race in Florida since 1994. Mr Crist held the office for four years, ending in 2011, as a Republican. He later switched parties.
Mr Morgan – who runs one of the country’s largest personal-injury law firms and has hosted fundraisers for President Barack Obama – said he had contributed more than $3m (£1.8m) to the marijuana effort so far. He said he was also planning to be a top fundraiser for Mr Crist.
Activists hoping to put the question of legalising medical marijuana before voters have collected about a million signatures, according to Ben Pollara, campaign manager for People United for Medical Marijuana and a Democratic strategist.
The group led by Mr Morgan, created to support the Florida initiative, needs to have about 683,000 signatures verified by election supervisors by 1 February to qualify. As of yesterday afternoon 414,075 signatures had been verified by the state. Mr Pollara said he was confident the group would meet the requirement.
Mr Morgan, 57, insists his roles in the governor’s race and the medical marijuana proposal are unrelated. He said he had not advised Mr Crist – a former state governor, attorney general, education commissioner and senator from St Petersburg who also supports medical marijuana use – to campaign on the issue.
Mr Morgan likened his financial backing of the ballot initiative to philanthropic causes he had supported in the past. Both his father, who died of cancer, and his brother, a quadriplegic, used marijuana for pain management.
“I’ve seen it work. I know it works,” said Mr Morgan, who hired Mr Crist to work at his Morgan & Morgan law firm after the former Republican governor lost a 2010 US Senate race to Marco Rubio. In that contest Mr Crist ran as an independent.
Mr Morgan’s law firm could benefit from having Mr Crist in the governor’s office, with veto power over legislation unfavourable to trial lawyers. Republicans and business groups have moved to crack down on trial lawyers in recent years.
Republicans say Mr Morgan is trying to manipulate voter turnout in the November election to favour Mr Crist in a state with a history of close contests. Mr Obama carried Florida in 2012 by less than 1 per cent of the vote, and Mr Scott, the incumbent governor, won in 2010 by 61,500 votes out of 5.3 million cast.
“It’s a pretty transparent ploy,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist who once worked for Mr Crist but now supports Mr Scott.
Mr Patton, the pollster, called the marijuana initiative “extremely well calculated” and said it could be a “game changer” for the 2014 election, offsetting the advantage Florida Republicans typically have in years with no presidential race. Republicans in Florida and elsewhere have performed best in such years, as Democratic-leaning young voters and minorities have stayed home.
Democrats also see the marijuana initiative as a potential magnet for votes in November, according to Jeff Clemens, a Democrat state senator who has previously tried unsuccessfully to pass medical marijuana legislation.
“It’s clear Democrats are very supportive and Republicans are split down the middle on this, but independents are overwhelmingly in support of medical marijuana,” he said.