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Meet Jonathan Dine, the Libertarian Who Could Swing the McCaskill-Akin Race

Jonathan Dine was at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia when his Facebook page mysteriously lit up with activity. It wasn’t until he returned home to Kansas City, some hour and a half away, that he figured out why. An interview had just aired in which Rep. Todd Akin, the Republican challenger to Senator Claire McCaskill, had made his now-infamous “legitimate rape” comment. And disaffected Missourians were checking out Dine, a Libertarian candidate who is the only other name on the ballot with Akin and McCaskill, in droves.

In the wake of Akin’s implosion, polls have shown that voters, especially Republicans, are blown away and seeking an alternative. Thirteen percent of Missouri Republicans, according to the Rasmussen poll, favor “some other candidate” when asked about the two major party candidates. On top of that, another 7 percent are undecided. Dine, who also ran for Missouri Senator in 2010 and took about 3 percent of the vote, considers these voters to be his potential share of the electorate. That idea isn’t so far-fetched. New York Times blogger Nate Silver recently mused that Dine’s ballot presence could lure away Republicans who are turned off by Todd Akin but still can’t stomach the thought of voting McCaskill. Dine may have an opportunity to make a real showing come November and doom Akin’s candidacy. In fact, with 18 percent of Missouri independents undecided or leaning toward “some other candidate,” he could endanger McCaskill.

And considering Dine’s background, that’s a little wild.

I met the 32-year-old at a strip mall Caribou Coffee across from Impact Fitness, where he works full-time as a personal trainer. (Recently, he showed off his bench press chops in a videotaped competition with a reporter, completing 13 reps with 225 lbs in less than a minute.) Jacked, clean-shaven, and sporting crisp slacks and a black polo shirt—it is no surprise when he says he is originally from San Diego—he was surprisingly mild and soft-spoken.

His politics are unelaborate, down-the-ticket Libertarianism. “We still want to government to protect you from force and fraud,” he said, “But we want people to be free to marry who they want, be free to experiment with their own consciousness.” Ron Paul is too socially conservative for his taste, a dinosaur.

Dine is sick of the U.S.’s interventionist foreign policy, its bitter partisan politics, and its burgeoning debt and deficit. “I would support balancing the budget in 2013, and not 20 years from now,” he continued.

But Dine is particularly motivated by his convictions about marijuana law. In both senses of the word: Several years ago, pot use sent him to jail. In 2006, Dine called the police on his girlfriend’s father, who had shown up drunk and belligerent at Dine’s apartment, broken the door, and ransacked the place. When they arrived, officers spotted a grow light and marijuana plants. Police returned with a search warrant the next day, and Dine spent several months in prison for possession. “My experience with the criminal justice system left me a little jaded,” he told me sheepishly. “A ton of people in jail with me were in there for drugs.”

In fact, Dine is a twice-convicted felon. He earned a 2005 conviction in Kansas for identity theft when he purchased a car with his brother’s driver’s license. Either felony would render him ineligible to hold state office in Missouri. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to prevent him from running for Senator. And so, he’s popped up all over Missouri at various summer festivals. He’ll pass out pamphlets and ham it up for goofy photos—posing with Stormtroopers or showing off Sharpie tattoos: a pot leaf and the words, “legalize marijuana” scrawled onto his pecs, “VOTE DINE” drawn on his deltoids.

As for the other folks running for Senator, in the limited time he spends on the campaign trail, Dine is attracting some of the voters they probably wish he wouldn’t. He mostly consorts with older voters. But he finds it easy to attract younger, more liberal ones, like the college students McCaskill just spent a week pitching to at colleges around the state. “The majority of young voters are easily swayed,” Dine said. Often they’re single-issue voters, prone to persuasion on the pot issue, “especially when you’re the only person on the ballot who understands that vice is not a crime.”

Ultimately, he tells me, “Winning or losing isn’t the goal, but raising the idea of what Libertarianism is”—a reasonable bar to set, given that he can only campaign on weekends and his Facebook page has more likes (2,594) than Dine’s campaign has dollars (about $1,500, most of it donated by out-of-state Republicans following Akin’s “legitimate rape” blunder). Still, he’s caused an upset before, beating out the leader of the Missouri Libertarian Party in the 2010 primary by out-organizing her and bringing thousands of new voters into the fold. This month, Dine is slated to appear at the upcoming debate hosted by the Missouri Press Association—which looks to be the only debate confirmed between Akin and McCaskill. If it’s televised, a good performance could cause tremors in the major party’s camps. Especially if he takes his shirt off.

Follow me on Twitter at @mtredden