The Republican Party has an excellent chance of winning the majority of Senate seats this November. Alaska could make the difference, since incumbent Democrat Mark Begich is particularly vulnerable. But a ballot initiative on legalizing pot could keep him in office, and maintain a Democratic majority.
There are several reasons why the Alaska Senate race is competitive this year. Begich barely won over the late Senator Ted Stevens in 2008. Alaska is a conservative, Republican-voting state that has given its electoral votes to a Democratic candidate only one time (during LBJ's 1964 landslide victory). And this year's Senate race falls during a midterm, when voters tend to favor Republican candidates, particularly when an unpopular Democrat is in the White House.
However, John Hudak, who specializes in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, believes a certain green herb can keep Alaska and the Senate blue:
People turn out for elections when they feel passion about a candidate or a race, but ballot initiatives can also generate interest, passion and turnout. Research by Smith, DeSantis & Kassel illustrate that ballot initiatives in 2004 centering on outlawing same sex marriage generated additional turnout (even in a presidential year) among conservatives in key states. Passion about marijuana legalization can do the same, and we have evidence of this effect.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington had statewide referenda on the question of marijuana legalization, [whose] supporters, particularly passionate ones, tend to be younger and either more liberal or more libertarian in nature….. In Washington and Colorado, the composition of those who turned out to vote changed dramatically between 2008 and 2012—each a presidential year. Nationally, there was little change in the composition of the electorate in terms of youth and liberalism. But in the states with marijuana legalization initiatives it did, dramatically.
Hudak cautions, however, that Democrats shouldn't rush to get legalization on as many state ballots as possible. While that might change the composition of the electorate, it doesn't guarantee a win for candidates. In fact, many proponents of legalization would be reluctant to push the issue during a mid-term election, when the voters tend to be older and more conservative. If an initiative gets defeated at the polls, it's a blow to the momentum of its supporters.
As such Hudak concludes that, while younger, more liberal voters will turn out in Alaska, legalization supporters "would be wise to wait until 2016 and capitalize on a dual effect. A presidential election year will bring out voters more sympathetic to legalization, and legalization will bring out even more young, liberal voters than normal. Marijuana may keep Mark Begich in the Senate and Harry Reid at the helm in 2014, but it may have an even bigger impact on Democratic gains in 2016."