FACT SHEET: Spending in 2017 Pennsylvania Supreme Court Races

November 7, 2017

A combination of factors may have led to lower spending on TV ads in 2017’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections compared to 2015, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.  

Three seats are up for election this year: one sitting justice faces a competitive election against another candidate, and two other justices are standing in retention elections. As of Monday, November 6th, candidates for the Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party have spent $921,060 on television advertising, according to estimates provided to the Brennan Center by Kantar Media/CMAG:

  • Incumbent Justice Sallie Mundy (R) has spent $699,370 in her competitive election
  • Challenger Judge Dwayne Woodruff (D) has spent $14,100 in his competitive election
  • Justice Debra Todd (D) has spent $192,900 in her retention election
  • Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (R) has not spent on television advertising in his retention election
  • The Pennsylvania Democratic Party has spent $14,690 in support of Judge Woodruff
  • No outside groups have spent money on TV ads tracked by Kantar Media/CMAG

Spending at this point in the election is down significantly from 2015’s record-breaking supreme court election for three open seats on the court, which saw at least $6.9 million in TV ads from candidates and another $3 million from outside groups at this point in the cycle. The lower cost races this cycle are likely due to a number of factors lowering the stakes of the 2017 races.

Most significantly, the ideological balance of the court was up for grabs in 2015. Historically, the potential for an election to change ideological control of a court has fueled big spending in supreme court elections across the country. In 2017, however, Democrats’ 5-2 majority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is not at risk.

Another potential contributor to lowered costs is that two of the three 2017 races are retention elections, in which voters decide whether a sitting justice should keep their seat on the court. In 2015 all three seats were filled in a competitive race involving multiple candidates campaigning against one another. While in recent years individual states have seen highly-politicized retention elections, retention elections are still generally lower-cost than contested elections. 

"Nothing about partisan judicial elections makes sense," said Maida Milone, President and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. "Judges are supposed to be impartial, but the process forces them to raise money from big donors and run partisan attack ads."

The Brennan Center’s Buying Time 2017 page contains the full details of TV spending in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court elections, including copies of the ads and storyboards provided by Kantar Media/CMAG.

CMAG’s calculations do not reflect ad agency commissions or the costs of producing advertisements, nor do they reflect the cost of ad buys on local cable channels. CMAG’s data editing process may take several months to complete, and as a result, estimated spending totals may change once the process is finished.

Read more about the Brennan Center’s work for Fair Courts.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292-8381 or naren.daniel@nyu.edu