Last week, Justice Brent Benjamin derided the first in a series of ads critical of fellow candidates Darrell McGraw and Bill Wooton. Since then, the Republican State Leadership Committee has launched two more ads critical of McGraw and Wooton and endorsing Beth Walker.
Now, Wooton has joined Benjamin in blasting the ad campaign.
“These negative ads are a weak attempt on the part of outsiders, using money from highly questionable out-of- state sources in support of an unworthy and unqualified candidate to mislead voters,” Wooton’s campaign said on its website.
“Our Legislature has clearly stated that massive special interest spending on negative ad campaigns harms the public’s perception of the fairness of our courts,” Benjamin said last week in his original condemnation. “Our court is moving in a positive direction, and I agree with our legislators that these negative advertisements should have no place in today’s judicial campaigns, and that our courts should remain independent of any special interests or political groups.”
In the final weeks of the race, special interest spending has skyrocketed. Benjamin’s campaign said the ad buys by outside groups has dwarfed the contributions of West Virginia voters in the race by a margin of 4-to-1. Most of that, according to campaign finance filings, has been from the RSLC, which is based in Washington. The group promotes itself as the only national organization whose mission is to elect down-ballot, state-level Republican officeholders.
The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee also has produced an ad promoting Walker. Meanwhile, another ad targets Walker by tying her to Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who recently was convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety rules. That ad was paid for by the Just Courts for WV PAC, which is funded by trial lawyer firms. Walker’s campaign has said the ad includes “false claims based on misleading evidence,” noting that Walker met with Blankenship once in 2008 during her first state Supreme Court campaign.
“We ask all candidates to join us in condemning these negative ads and to cease the big money attempts by third-parties to buy a seat on the Supreme Court,” Benjamin said. “In view of her personal promotion within these new out-of- state political attack ads, we also urge Ms. Walker to disassociate herself from such negative campaigning and to rethink her previous refusal to join us in condemning special interest spending in this race.
“This is a moment for candidates to show they stand for positive campaigning and the independence and integrity of our court system.”
Judicial elections in West Virginia now are non-partisan, and the RSLC ad attacks two former officeholders who were Democrats. McGraw is a former Supreme Court justice and longtime state Attorney General, and Wooton served in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate.
Benjamin, who won his seat in 2004 as a Republican, called for the other candidates to condemn the negative ad as well.
Last week, a spokesman for Walker, who previously ran an unsuccessful bid for the state Supreme Court as a Republican in 2008, said she is focusing on “her positive campaign” as the election nears.
Benjamin's position on the court is up for grabs this year in the May 10 election. McGraw, Walker, Wooton and Clay County attorney Wayne King also are running for the seat.