Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Winning In Red States With Marijuana Legalization


Remember a couple weeks ago there was an amazing legislative seat flip in Kentucky? Democrat Linda Belcher beat Rebecca Johnson for the open state House seat (49th district). On February 20th, Belcher won 68.4% to 31.6% in a district Trump had won 72% to 23% (and which Romney had won 66-33%). That's a really red district and Belcher's 45-point improvement on Hillary’s performance was engineered by a legendary Kentucky political figure, Mike Ward. Ward was Belcher's campaign manager. He had served in the state legislature himself, from 1989 to 1993 when he confounded a GOP wave election and won an open congressional seat, serving in Congress until 1996 when Bill Clinton appointed him Associate Director of the Peace Corps.

Today, Mike's son, Jasper Ward, is working on legalizing marijuana in Kentucky and, through his Greenwave PAC, helping candidates-- primarily in red states-- use the marijuana legalization issue to campaign for Congress. The PAC released two ads this week, one for Dan Canon in Indiana (up top) and one for Kendra Fershee in West Virginia (below). I thought this would be a good time to re-run a guest post that Jasper did for DWT last summer:

Green Wave
-by Jasper Ward

This waking nightmare that is America in 2017 is a disaster caused not just by President Trump, or even the criminal enterprise that is the Republican Party. Yes, Democrats share plenty of blame here, and 8 years of Obama in the White House covered up massive losses at the state and local level, like in my home state of Kentucky.

Democrats here managed to actually implement a popular health care program that drastically improved the lives of a lot of Kentucky voters, and then steadfastly refused to admit it on the campaign trail. Alison Lundergan Grimes famously refused to even cop to voting for Obama, which helped her with precisely no voters and lost her plenty of others. Now Republicans control the Governor’s mansion and both state houses for the first time in forever, and are going about ruining the lives of the people who put them in when they aren’t too busy going after trial lawyers and unions.

And who can blame them? Our esteemed Sen. Mitch McConnell has taught them that they should seek power for power’s sake, and then deftly manage using that power to reward contributors but not so much that you don’t have a reason to keep extorting money from them for the next cycle. It’s exhausting and depressing seeing how much bad Republicans can do in Kentucky and in Washington in such a short amount of time, and how hard it is to undo it.

Back to the Democrats. My God, the Democrats. I’m no stranger to Democratic politics, having worked as an intern and low-level staffer for the Gore campaign in Nashville, research director for Don Siegelman in Alabama in 2002, and then for various campaigns thereafter both as a staffer and wearing the dreaded “consultant” hat. Watching them steal Florida from Gore, Alabama from Siegelman (and then put him in jail on trumped up charges for good measure) and Democrats lose race after race from 2003 to the present, I come by my cynicism and despair honestly.

There are very few silver linings in the constant ongoing disaster that has befallen America. One that keeps me going is that there is a single issue that Republicans have handed Democrats on a silver platter, and the rise of wonderful non-DCCC fundraising and energy-challenging websites like this one means there are more candidates out there who might be willing to actually accept this wondrous gift. That issue is cannabis legalization, more commonly referred to as medical marijuana.

For Democrats to actually change America for the better, it is not enough to just get rid of Trump and the GOP Congressional majority. There must also be some sort of actual policy success in the 2019 or 2021 sessions. And while minimum wage, Medicare For All, postal banking, and trying to undo the damage of Trump are good progressive priorities, there is not one issue that affects so many people and so many other issues as marijuana legalization.

So my theory is this: Democratic candidates running in 2018 should run as “single issue” candidates whose sole issue is legalization, and ride this green wave to a majority with a mandate to actually legalize marijuana nationwide. And then actually legalize it. Because this is not really a single issue, it’s a way to talk about a number of other issues that most red state voters just won’t listen to Democrats talk about anymore. Here is why I think medical marijuana is the best possible issue for Democratic candidates to run on in 2018.

It’s The Right Thing To Do

Obviously legalization is the right thing to do. That’s always a good starting place for a revolution.

Legalization Cuts Across Democratic Factions

There’s a good reason there is no consistent Democratic economic message: the party leadership is influenced by big money and the economic ideas and interests of rich folk, if not to the extent of Republicans, at least sufficiently enough to prevent things like Medicare for All, high frequency trading taxes or similar Wall Street-focused revenue raisers, minimum wage increases and other basic working class progressive ideas. Even if we get majorities in Congress, I fear getting more “art of the possible” language coming from the leadership as half-measures and Rube Goldberg public-private partnership machines pass by a few votes. Honestly, if you are a Democrat running in a red district in Kentucky or statewide in Alabama, what can you offer voters from an economic standpoint that would cause them to even give you 10 seconds attention, much less their vote?

Legalization cuts across this dynamic. The big money against legalization is the big money that generally speaking all but a few Democrats aren’t hooked on: opioid drug makers and distributors, private prison conglomerates, the FOP/right-wing police organizations. As a pure economic message, legalization is an actual jobs creation program that would sell across the party, and there are few issues that check that box.

From a civil rights, personal freedom and racial politics standpoint, this issue can help heal the wounds from 2016 and ongoing coastal v. heartland democratic outposts like my hometown of Louisville, allowing Democratic leaders to talk about civil rights in an expansionary and proactive way, and not just defending rights from Trump and the rest of the GOP or trying to have it both ways on issues like police brutality.

Legalization, the Opioid Crisis and Rural America

Where does economic growth come from in the 21st Century? Do any Democrats have actual ideas for this? We know Republicans don’t yet somehow they are the ones that talk about economic growth and people believe them. If you are a Democrat, how do you expand persuadable voters in the red state districts and states that we need to actually take back Congress? How about an issue that would be just as beneficial for rural America as it would for people everywhere else?

Of the many, many “how did we get here?” thinkpieces post-Trump, the despair from the towns and counties across America ravaged by the loss of manufacturing jobs, the rise of the opioid crisis and the lack of any real long-term policy answer rang the most to me. Lost in the day to day personal lies and awfulness, Trump was able to close the campaign by lying constantly about policy and promising the moon to people, and damned if they didn’t vote for him based on the hope that at least he’d try to do something about opioids.

Legalization actually does something. The connection between medical marijuana for chronic pain and the reduction in opioids is a real phenomenon. Trump will likely make the opioid epidemic worse, or at least do nothing so that it gets worse on its own. Talking about legalization as a specific policy promise to fight opioids is both true and lets Democrats at least try to talk to communities that are hurting.

Finally, farmers, farming communities and small towns, will have to replace the economic bump they are getting from national reporters identifying every single Trump voter and interviewing them for newspaper articles. Growing, processing and distributing marijuana can take place in areas that don’t have another potential growth industry, unless they discover bitcoins in the hills of Eastern Kentucky or rural Ohio.

Legalization and New Ideas

There are a number of other policy issues that legalization effects and that Democrats have no ability to talk about to white voters in red states without looking like they are just trying to Sister Souljah-virtue signal their way to the top. Crime is an easy example: it’s not just dumb marijuana arrests, it’s the pretext stops, the probation revocation, the random drug tests for people on parole, the overcrowding of prisons, and all of the other nonsense hassles that criminalization puts (disproportionately African-American) citizens through. And cutting off easy money for drug dealers will actually reduce crime: making marijuana illegal increases illegal drug sales because you have to have a drug dealer to get it, and drug dealers can use horizontal marketing to leverage pot customers into increased sales of harder drugs.

The next time I hear a Democrat say they aren’t just “tough on crime, but smart on crime” the next words out of her mouth better be “legalize marijuana” or that politician has not gotten one new red state white voter and has probably alienated plenty of Democratic voters who might as well stay home.

Talking about legalization and legalization only helps Democratic candidates run on a message, instead of running on their own biography. Democratic candidates time and again lose elections because they make it about themselves and how much they want everyone to like them and how great they are. Republican candidates are fungible and easy to replace and all look alike and own a small insurance business back home; they are simply the messengers, the less interesting the better.

Because the message is not just about legalization, jobs, civil rights and opioids. The message can easily be this: “I’m a candidate who has strong beliefs and actual, honest-to-goodness new ideas. Legalization is so obviously good for everyone, but the current generation of elected officials still won’t do it. What other obvious solutions are they ignoring and blocking? The leadership of both parties have spent the last 2 decades presiding over multiple disastrous wars, deregulating everything and crashing the world economy, increasing income inequality to unsustainable levels, and handing over control of government to a handful of psychotic billionaires. The last election was ultimately a choice between someone promising orderly and responsible management over the decline of America and someone who specifically promised to set everything on fire and loot the treasury. Legalization is the exact opposite of more of the same.” Maybe too long for a bumper sticker, but you could fit that into a 30 second ad.


Democrats, especially in red districts and red states, can run against Trump in 2018, can run on the ideals of democracy and other high-purpose sounding messages that appeal to people’s better natures. Some may pull off a surprise, but more likely than not, they will run really cool ads that go viral on Twitter and raise a bunch of money that they can pay their consultants and then lose by 5-10 points in 15-20 point GOP advantage districts. That’s the safe play, and I understand why people do it.

There’s another option though. Louisville’s own Hunter S. Thompson wrote the wave speech looking back, seeing the crest and the aftermath. He earned his cynicism and depression too. I may be crazy, but I can see a green wave building across this country. Hopefully there are enough Democrats who see it too, and who are willing to hop on and ride it until it crests.

Meanwhile, Randy Bryce told me he favors marijuana legalization and yesterday he called on Ryan's campaign to return the money-- money we call bribes at DWT-- from opioid manufacturer Allegan. Allegan, which has been dumping opioids into the market and addicting people gave Ryan's joint fundraising committee another $2,500, having addicted him to their bribes long ago. Allergan is currently being investigated by 41 state Attorneys General for marketing and distributing their products illegally. The overprescription of opioids and misleading statements by pharmaceutical manufacturers like Allergan have been identified as a leading cause of the opioid crisis. Bryce, who accepts no contributions from corporate PACs: "The opioid crisis has torn apart families and cost local governments, and their taxpayers, billions of dollars. It is unacceptable that Speaker Ryan would take a contribution from the manufacturers partly responsible for that. If Paul Ryan does not return these contributions, there can be no doubt that 20 years in Washington have changed him. He is no longer looking out for the Wisconsin families and communities who are trying to fight back against this crisis, he is looking out for the donors and lobbyists he's seen every day for the last two decades."

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At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm . . . what if Red Staters are too stoned on opioids to care? Especially if pills are cheaper for out-of-work coal miners to buy?

At 6:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nazis may be somewhat split or indifferent on pot.

But no matter what the left comes up with, the Nazis always have hate, greed, religion, fear, guns, greed and hate to keep their side devout and motivated.

Did I forget to mention greed and hate?


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