CHARLESTON – It’s less than two weeks before West Virginia voters decide who will serve a 12-year term on the state Supreme Court, and four outside groups have spent more than $1.1 million on advertising in the race.
According to a Brennan Center for Justice analysis of state disclosure forms and data from Kantar Media/CMAG, three of the groups began airing television ads this week. The fourth is buying radio ads.
“Outside spending has drastically changed the tone of this race,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We have consistently seen that outside groups are much more likely to go negative than the candidates themselves.
“The worry is that when judicial races look like ordinary politics, the public may question whether judges are any different than politicians.”
The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has spent $169,414 on ads supporting Beth Walker’s campaign. The ad, which can be viewed online, says she will be a “tough, fair, conservative judge.”
The Just Courts for West Virginia Political Action Committee has spent $229,000 in opposition to Walker, according to disclosure reports. The group is running an ad criticizing Walker for her ties to Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who was recently convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety rules.
And, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) has spent $722,373 to oppose two candidates — former state legislator William “Bill” Wooton and former state Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Darrell McGraw. The group’s first ad said Wooton and McGraw let the Obama administration roll over West Virginia, while a second ad accuses McGraw of using tax dollars for personal reasons during his time as attorney general.
The Brennan Center says the RSLC also is active in state Supreme Court races in Wisconsin and Arkansas and, according to documents, was the biggest multi-state spender in state Supreme Court races in the 2013-2014 cycle, spending $3.4 million across four state elections and one local court race.
Also, the Moving West Virginia Forward BICPAC, which is funded by the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, has spent $54,600 in radio ads in support of Walker.
The Brennan Center says spending by outside groups has become increasingly prominent in Supreme Court elections across the country. Outside spending by interest groups in 2013-14 was a higher percentage of election spending than ever before, accounting for over 29 percent of total spending. The comprehensive report by the Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics examined spending in 2013-2014 judicial elections.
“West Virginia has a public financing system that aims to steer candidates away from relying on special-interest dollars,” said Julie Archer, project manager with West Virginia Citizen Action Group and a co-coordinator of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections. “The emergence of outside groups erodes public trust, and voters aren’t sure if candidates have their best interests at heart on the bench.”
In addition to McGraw, Walker and Wooton, other candidates are incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin and Clay County attorney Wayne King. The non-partisan election is May 10.
According to the documents, candidates have reported the following campaign figures:
• Benjamin has reported raising a total of $534,050, including $483,489 in public funding.
• Wooton has reported raising a total of $545,726, including $475,000 in public funding.
• McGraw has reported raising a total of $52,867, and reported loaning his campaign $1,360.
• King has reported raising a total of $0, and reported loaning his campaign a total of $13,860.
• Walker has reported raising a total of $199,926. She also reports two loans of $250,000 from her husband, Michael Walker, to her campaign