TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The pot vote may decide the Florida governor’s race.

Democratic operatives are pushing a statewide referendum on medical marijuana that Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s supporters say threatens to tilt the race against him. State Republicans have filed a legal challenge to keep the referendum off the ballot.

Democrats and marijuana activists across the country are monitoring Florida’s quest to become the first state in the South to legalize some marijuana use, watching to see if the issue has a spillover effect that may offer a blueprint for the 2016 elections.

SOCIAL ISSUES BRING OUT VOTERS

“It’s an issue that the Democrats can use to pump up the youth vote,” said Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant and pollster based in Gainesville, Fla. “The politics of it are dangerous for the GOP.”

In previous elections, Republicans benefited from social issues being on the ballot. During President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, 11 states voted on gay marriage bans. Karl Rove, Bush’s top strategist, denied engineering the ballot drives, while acknowledging the importance of social issues in fueling Republican turnout.

The architect of Florida’s medical marijuana initiative, Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, employs Charlie Crist, 57, the leading Democratic candidate for Florida governor, and serves as an adviser. No Democrat has won a governor’s race in Florida since 1994. Crist held the office for four years, ending in 2011, as a Republican. He later switched parties.

Morgan – who runs one of the country’s largest personal injury law firms and has hosted fundraisers for President Barack Obama – said he has contributed more than $3 million to the pot effort so far. He said he’s planning to be a top fundraiser for Crist.

Activists hoping to put the question of legalizing medical marijuana before voters have collected about 1 million signatures, said Ben Pollara, campaign manager of the People United for Medical Marijuana and a Democratic strategist.

The Morgan-led group, created to support the Florida initiative, needs to have about 683,000 signatures verified by election supervisors by Feb. 1 to qualify. Pollara said he’s confident the group will get enough.

LAWYER’S MOTIVATION

Morgan, 57, says his roles in the governor’s race and medical marijuana proposal are unrelated. He said he hasn’t advised Crist – a former governor, attorney general, education commissioner and state senator from St. Petersburg who supports medical marijuana – to campaign on the issue.

Morgan likened his financial backing of the ballot initiative to philanthropic causes he’s supported in the past. Both his father, who died from cancer, and brother, a quadriplegic, used marijuana for pain.

“I’ve seen it work, I know it works,” said Morgan, who hired Crist at the Morgan & Morgan law firm after the former Republican governor lost a 2010 Senate race to Marco Rubio. Crist ran as an independent in that contest.

Morgan’s law firm could benefit from having Crist in the governor’s office, with veto power over legislation unfavorable to trial lawyers.