Marijuana Coalition To Court Conservative Voters Despite GOP Opposition To Measure

This spring, the Alaska Republican Party came out against an initiative that would regulate marijuana like alcohol. Now, some conservatives are formally declaring their support for Proposition 2, without the backing of the party’s official organizations. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

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The conservative coalition was introduced in the lobby of the initiative’s public relations firm, and reporters outnumbered the outreach team’s three members. There was Bruce Schulte, a district chair for the party; Dani Bickford, a former officer of the Anchorage Young Republicans who is now working on the marijuana campaign. And then there was talk radio host Eddie Burke, who characterized it as an issue that would resonate with the Tea Party.

“When you start breaking down those liberty and freedom issues, that’s when people understand it’s nothing to do with smoking or not smoking or whether you’re going to use it or not use it,” says Burke. “It has to do with government making decisions for you that they shouldn’t.”

Polls show the marijuana initiative appeals more to voters on the left side of the spectrum. A survey completed this spring by Dittman research found that 83 percent of “very liberal” voters support the marijuana initiative, while just 22 percent of “very conservative” respondents would vote for it.

But no ballot measure campaign ever wants to be branded as partisan. Take, for example, the recent oil tax referendum: Both sides insisted they appealed to people across the political spectrum, even if polling suggested that a person’s position on the issue was likely to correlate with their ideology. Republican and Democratic lawmakers vocally made cases for it, against it, every which way really, and – in one case – did advertising spots with their respective rivals across the aisle.

Now, we’re seeing the same thing happen with the marijuana initiative. Only, the pro-side is running into a little more trouble with that than the antis. Hardly any elected officials have taken public stances in support of the marijuana initiative – there’s Democratic congressional candidate Forrest Dunbar and Democratic state legislator David Guttenberg, and that’s about it. No Republicans running for office have explicitly said they’ll vote for the initiative. Congressman Don Young has come closest to offering support, describing it as an issue best left to the states and supporting legislation in that vein.

Conservative cannabis coalition member Bruce Schulte thinks that’s because there’s a stigma attached favoring marijuana legalization.

“I think it would be hard for any legislator to come out on behalf of an activity which is, in fact, illegal,” says Schulte.

The Alaska Republican Party has also taken a stand against the initiative to allow the sale of marijuana to adults over the age of 21 and tax growers $50 per ounce. At their annual convention in May, 75 percent of delegates voted for a resolution opposing Proposition 2.

Schulte was one of the people who spoke against the resolution, arguing that legalizing marijuana encouraged smaller government.

“You know, there’s good people that went to that convention,” Schulte sighs. “They have their own reasons for opposing Prop 2 – I happen to disagree with them. I will work side by side with those same folks on other issues and other campaigns, but on this one, I disagree with them.”

Party chair Peter Goldberg says the party’s position on the marijuana measure is firm, but he understands there’s some diversity of opinion among Republicans.

“There’s some Republicans who feel it should be legalized, and that’s fine,” says Goldberg. “But as a party, and individually, I feel it should be more difficult to get marijuana.”

The initiative opposition group Big Marijuana Big Mistake has a number of high-profile Republicans backing it, like former Gov. Frank Murkowski who co-hosted a fundraiser on the group’s behalf.

Kristina Woolston, a spokesperson for Big Marijuana Big Mistake, believes her group has a stronger claim to having more conservative support.

“The Alaska League of Republican Women voted [on Tuesday] to support the No on 2 campaign, and they also made a financial contribution,” says Woolston. “The Republican Party has supported [us], and also Republican candidates have also lined up to support the No on 2 campaign.”

Woolston also points to support from Democrats, like former Gov. Bill Sheffield and Deborah Williams, who previously directed the Alaska Democratic Party.

As for the party itself, it’s avoided entering the marijuana debate. The Democrats didn’t consider a resolution on that proposition at their convention, even though they weighed in on other measures.

While the marijuana initiative hasn’t gotten much public support from the state’s elected leaders, the few public polls done on the question show a tight race with most giving the initiative the edge.

So, why might that be? Pollster Marc Hellenthal thinks the marijuana measure could be susceptible to something known as a “social desirability bias,” where people publicly take a position they think matches the social norms even though they might vote the other way. That could be especially true for officeholders.

“Public figures don’t want to get branded as a druggie,” says Hellenthal. “So, they’re somewhat reluctant to lend their name, even though they may be very supportive.”

Of course, the only way to find out if the public sentiment matches the private one is to wait for the election returns on Nov. 4.