ST. PAUL-The third-party legalize marijuana candidate for Minnesota attorney general on Monday, Oct. 15, endorsed Keith Ellison in his bid for the office.

Noah M. Johnson, who represents the Grassroots - Legalize Cannabis Party on the ballot, said he is throwing his support behind Ellison primarily because Ellison, a Democrat, has endorsed legalizing marijuana.

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But Johnson also said he's generally more aligned with Ellison on liberal issues and he strongly opposes several aspects of the conservative platform of Doug Wardlow, the Republican nominee. Wardlow has not endorsed legalization.

Normally, the activities of third-party candidates might not draw much attention, but because Ellison and Wardlow are locked in a tight battle, it's possible Johnson's decision could affect the outcome.

The attorney general campaign of Ellison, a current U.S. House member from Minneapolis, has been plagued by an allegation of domestic abuse by his ex-girlfriend. Ellison has denied the allegation. The same polls that show Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidates with leads over Republican opponents have shown the Ellison-Wardlow race much closer - often within the margin of error. Meanwhile, one poll last month by the Minneapolis Star Tribune found about 5 percent of respondents supported Johnson - the same margin by which Ellison appeared to be leading Wardlow.

Johnson's profile was raised when - because of that poll's result - he was invited to participate in a three-way candidate forum hosted by Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" show.

"A lot of people hadn't heard of me before that," Johnson said Monday. "It raised recognition for me, but I think more specifically for the issue of legalization, to know there was a candidate out there who supported it."

Wardlow comments

The Wardlow-Ellison battle has been punctuated by fervent partisanship.

Wardlow has attacked Ellison not only for the domestic abuse allegation, but also for his postures that suggest a support for looser border protections and his associations with left-wing activists. "Extreme Keith Ellison" is the epithet a Wardlow TV ad uses.

Meanwhile, Democrats have attacked Wardlow for his previous legal work representing the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has sided with those opposed to gay rights.

Last week, Wardlow came under fire for telling a roomful of Republican donors that if he were elected, he would fire a number of staff attorneys who work for the office because they're Democrats.

"It's really exciting now to be in a position for the first time in a half century to take this office back," Wardlow said, according to a recording of the Oct. 8 Shakopee gathering obtained by Minnesota Public Radio and reviewed by the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We're going to fire 42 Democratic attorneys right off the bat and get Republican attorneys in there."

Wardlow backed off that idea after the news broke, issuing the following statement, in part: "Let me be perfectly clear: As I have consistently stated throughout this campaign, I will appoint assistants and deputies who believe in the rule of law and the Constitution. There will be no litmus test for party affiliation. As Attorney General, I will protect and defend the rights of all Minnesotans."

Johnson said those comments had no bearing on his decision to endorse Ellison.

Ellison allegation

Ellison's ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, has accused him of dragging her off a bed while screaming profanities at her in 2016 when Monahan was living in Ellison's Minneapolis home.

Johnson said he did consider that in mulling whether to endorse Ellison.

"It was certainly worth thinking about, and it's an issue I've thought about a lot," said Johnson, a criminal defense attorney who said he supports the principle of innocent until proven guilty. "If it is something he did, it's unacceptable. ... But considering the amount of harm that would come with Mr. Wardlow in office, it's an issue of what does the least harm for all of Minnesota, without passing judgment on Ms. Monahan's claims."

Johnson said he believes he likely was drawing some support from Republican-leaning voters who support legalization on libertarian principles, but there were other issues on which he said he opposes Wardlow.

In an op-ed submission to local newspapers, Johnson said Wardlow would work in "lockstep with Donald Trump" on taxation, health care and immigration and that Wardlow would "do everything he can" to help overturn Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that guarantees a woman's right to an abortion. Wardlow has said Roe is current law and that he would treat it as such.

Johnson noted that he entered the race when the presumed DFL candidate was current Attorney General Lori Swanson. Swanson dropped out in a failed attempt to run for governor, and her departure prompted Ellison to run for attorney general instead of re-election to his seat in Congress.

Ellison on Monday welcomed Johnson's endorsement.

"I am honored to have the endorsement of Mr. Johnson, and agree with him and the majority of Minnesotans who believe we should legalize marijuana and enact restorative justice for nonviolent offenders," Ellison said, in part, in a statement.

Warldow campaign manager Billy Grant issued the following statement in response to Johnson's endorsement of Ellison: "It's hard to see why Noah Johnson would throw his support behind Keith Ellison, who has been credibly accused of domestic violence. This endorsement shows that Keith Ellison's campaign is seriously worried about their growing lack of support among left-leaning voters."

Johnson's name will remain on the ballot, and he said he's not asking voters who have already voted to attempt to spoil their ballots if they voted for him.

When asked about whether he saw himself as a potential "kingmaker" in announcing his backing of Ellison, Johnson chuckled.

"I've heard that term thrown around a little bit today," he said. "I think that's grandiose. But I guess if Keith Ellison wins, maybe I was the kingmaker."