ST. PAUL, Minnesota. – Minnesota’s second congressional district race was thrown into turmoil when third party candidate, Adam Weeks of the Legal Marijuana Now Party (LMNP), unexpectedly died in September at just 38.
His death upended the election, overturned state law and is raising new concerns among election experts over what to do when a candidate dies in what is now expected to be a new era of vote by mail in America. And, of course, for those who knew Weeks, the biggest fallout is the loss of a friend, family member, and community figure.
An Election Upended
Weeks’ September death triggered a Minnesota state law that mandates a special election on the second Tuesday of February if a major party nominee dies within 79 days of Election Day (because LMNP received over 5 percent of the vote in the 2018 race for state auditor, it counts as a major party, according to state law).
The 2013 law passed after the sudden death of Minnesota’s US Senator Paul Wellstone 11 days before the 2002 election. After Wellstone died in a plane crash, the Minnesota Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) quickly nominated former US Vice President Walter Mondale as Wellstone’s replacement. With just days to campaign, Mondale narrowly lost the election to Republican Norm Coleman.
It took Minnesota lawmakers a decade to pass a law addressing the fallout of Wellstone’s death, but this year the state Supreme Court moved swiftly to basically invalidate that law after the death of Weeks earlier this fall. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) successfully challenged the delay in court, arguing that Minnesota’s second congressional district should have consistent, unending representation throughout the year. A special election would have meant that Minnesota’s second congressional seat would be vacant between the start of a new Congress in January and a special election on Feb. 9. The Angie Craig campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Her Republican challenger Tyler Kistner unsuccessfully tried to appeal the ruling and maintain the February special election, but the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Kistner’s campaign declined to comment for this story.
The LMNP selected a candidate, Paula Overby, to replace Weeks, but in light of the court’s decision to not delay the race, the Secretary of State declined to allow her to replace Weeks, so his name, even though he’s deceased, remained on the ballot.
Craig declared victory the morning of Nov. 4, cinching a second term with a narrow victory in the swing district that covers much of the southern suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota’s capital. A February special election, which would likely have seen significantly lower turnout, may well have complicated her path to victory.
As of Wednesday morning, 24,483 Minnesotans voted for the late Weeks, or around 5.8 percent of the vote total. This is what Tim Davis, current chair of the LMNP, had hoped to see.
“Basically what I told Paula [Overby] and everybody else is, ‘tell everybody to vote for Adam,’” Davis says. “He’s not gonna win, obviously, he’s dead, but they have to count the votes.”
What’s a Third Party to Do?
Indeed, LMNP supporters generally know their candidates won’t win, but a victory for a third in a two party system looks different than just winning a given race. Part of their political philosophy, supporters say, is not to win but to bring increased attention to the issues they stand for — in the LMNP’s case, marijuana legalization.
Cannabis legalization is popular across the aisle. According to Pew Research, 78 percent of Democrats nationwide want to see marijuana legalized, and at 55 percent, a slimmer but significant majority of Republicans do, too.
But even with growing bipartisan support for legal marijuana, LMNP supporters maintain that neither party reflects their views or priorities. While Democrats are more likely to support cannabis reform, Democratic leaders in Washington have drug their feet when it comes to enacting it nationwide. And the Democratic National Committee even moved away from supporting legalization in its party platform this year and instead opted for decriminalization. In a mostly blue state like Minnesota, LMNP supporters also question why the liberal state has yet to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana statewide.
But the path to meaningful reform, many cannabis advocates say, is bipartisan legislation, not single-issue third parties.
“My impression is that voters general don’t take single issue parties seriously, largely because they don’t usually have fully developed policy positions on a whole slew of other areas outside of that particular issue, and historically they haven’t been very successful either at getting candidates elected,” Morgan Fox, media relations director at the National Cannabis Industry Association, told The News Station.
An arguably larger problem for parties like the LMNP are operatives that try to take advantage of the LMNP’s modest sway on state elections. Several LMNP candidates across the state have admitted GOP loyalty outright or revealed that they were recruited by Republicans. In several close races across the state, LMNP candidates were trying to benefit Republicans by appealing to progressive voters and taking votes away from Democrats.
“There’s not much we can do unfortunately,” LMNP Chair Tim Davis told The News Station. Because the LMNP has major party status in Minnesota, candidates running for the LMNP ticket do not need to collect signatures to win a place on the ballot. Anyone who pays a $100-$300 fee can run as an LMNP candidate in districts across the state.
A bombshell story in the Star Tribune seemed to reveal via a May 20 voicemail that Adam Weeks was recruited by GOP operatives to ‘pull votes’ from Craig by appealing to Democratic voters. But Weeks’ friends, including some that worked on his campaign, dispute the Star Tribune story.
Paul Tuschy, a longtime friend of Weeks, says he recruited Weeks to run for Congress on the third party ticket and not to benefit the GOP. He maintains that the issues Weeks campaigned on were the issues he stood for: criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization.
“He believed in civil rights. He was strongly opposed to the war on ‘drugs.’ He had three marijuana leaves tattooed on him,” Tuschy told The News Station. “I mean he enjoyed guns to some extent, so to some extent, he was a libertarian. He was a mix of things, right?”
In 2012, Tuschy ran for a state representative seat in Minnesota as a Republican, but has gone on to support third party candidates too. Tuschy runs a Facebook page for an alter ego of his, Liberty Longbeard, that often criticizes US politicians and the US government – frequently attacking Joe Biden as well as Republican politicians.
Tuschy says he isn’t affiliated with the GOP — and that although Weeks says he was offered $15,000 to run as an LMNP candidate in the voicemail reported by the Star Tribune, those who knew Weeks say he never actually received any money to run.
“I thought it was kind of funny, because I was like, ‘wait a minute was $15,000 somewhere?’” says Weeks’ girlfriend, Gabby Ulan. “I know for a fact Adam didn’t have … $15,000.”
In fact, Weeks campaigned at a time where he was extremely strapped for cash due to the coronavirus pandemic. The organic farming business he owned had taken a huge hit due to economic shutdowns. His friends agreed that that huge loss of his business coupled with the stress of his campaign led him back into dangerous drinking and drug habits.
“I think, quite honestly, the campaign killed him,” Paula Overby told the News Station. Overby worked on Weeks’ campaign, and had previously run as an Independent in the second district in 2016, securing 8 percent of the vote.
“The stress of the campaign was enormous for him,” she continued. “And then the pandemic shut down the farmers markets and shut down his community, his business, community-supported agriculture. He started drinking.”
Without a market for his produce, he backslid.
“That’s what had been keeping him alive for 10 years,” Tuschy said. “He was up at the crack of dawn like working in his fields, harvesting vegetables, selling them, and that gave him his life right?”
It all took its toll.
Early Voting, Dead Candidates
LMNP supporters feel slighted by the legal proceedings which left them without a candidate. Even though many of Weeks’ supporters knew his chance of winning was slim, they still wanted a chance to vote for their candidate.
“The fact that they will not hold a special election has taken away… a lot of peoples’ chance to vote for what they wanted,” Ulan says.
But it’s not just long shot third party candidates. Weeks’ death has also shown us that the US electoral system remains unequipped to handle unexpected deaths of political candidates or even those left otherwise incapacitated in the waning days of an election.
“[The district 2 race] is potentially going to be sort of a harbinger of a problem that’s going to continue to grow,” David Schulz, an election law expert at Hamline University, told The News Station.
Especially as the popularity of early voting has surged this election year, candidate deaths pose a serious problem for election officials. Minnesota mailed out absentee ballots to those who requested them on September 18. Weeks’ death was reported just 6 days earlier. With the 2013 law now thrown out, there’s no clear legislative solution here in Minnesota when candidates die, potentially throwing more races into chaos in the future.
No solution at the federal level exists for this problem either – the issue of candidate death came to the forefront when outgoing President Donald Trump contracted COVID-19 in early October, but then it faded from cable news almost as quickly as it overtook their broadcasts.
Experts say there’s no realistic possibility of delaying the election in that situation, which would require quick congressional legislation. Rather, the DNC or RNC would have to scramble to quickly choose a replacement. And with voting starting as early as September in some states, it’ll be too late to reprint ballots if candidates die or are incapacitated in the weeks leading up to the election.
“I think our law is not yet ready, or not fully prepared yet, to deal with more early voting and what to do with the problem of individuals who might pass early,” Schulz says.
Weeks’ death triggered a massive legal scandal, an upended state law and an election thrown into chaos. But for those who knew Weeks, the impact of his death, of course, hits closer to home.
“People loved Adam. He was a strong community advocate. He did community supported agriculture. He supported his community,” Overby says. “My challenge at this point is to create a positive legacy for someone who was a pretty amazing person that ended in tragedy, and that’s not an easy story to tell, especially in the midst of political assaults.”
“Adam as a politician was amazing. He would walk into any place, and everybody when he walked out, everyone knew his name,” Ulan, Weeks’ girlfriend, says. “He would have really made an impact, I believe.”