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TV Ad Spending in Michigan Supreme Court Race Surges Past $1 Million

Michigan is again leading the nation with the highest TV ad spending totals in the race for three open seats on the state’s Supreme Court.

October 10, 2014

Michigan Leads Nation in TV Spending in Fall Supreme Court Races

Spending on TV advertising airtime has topped $1 million in three contested races for the Michigan Supreme Court, as the state Republican Party began an ad campaign touting its nominees, according to an analysis by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice of publicly available Federal Communications Commission (FCC) files and data from Kantar/CMAG.  Nationally, the amount spent on TV ads in Michigan is the highest documented thus far in the Supreme Court elections this fall, totaling $1,234,312.  

Michigan’s Supreme Court candidates have spent nearly $990,000 on airtime bookings for ads in the general election, according to FCC files.  Meanwhile, the Michigan Republican Party’s TV ad campaign has cost an estimated $244,720 thus far, according to estimates by Kantar/CMAG, which captures ads that have already aired in major media markets. Eight candidates are running for three open seats on Michigan’s high court.

“Michigan is again leading the charge on TV ad spending in judicial elections,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. “With the highest TV ad expenditures in the nation in 2012, Michigan seems to be ground zero for politicized judicial ad wars. We need to insulate judges and candidates from election politics so that people trust that Michigan’s courts are fair and impartial. Stronger judicial recusal rules and public financing for Michigan’s Supreme Court elections would be good first steps.”

“It’s troubling that spending in Michigan’s Supreme Court race is again on track to reach astronomical proportions,” said Executive Director Bert Brandenburg of Justice at Stake. “Michigan has become a national symbol of an arms race that is putting pressure on judges to answer to political pressure instead of the law and the constitution.”

“The TV ad spending that is traceable so far is really just the tip of the iceberg,” said Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “Furthermore, the Michigan Republican Party ad appears to be a phony ‘issue’ ad that will not be disclosed to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, although we won’t know that for certain until pre-election reports are filed. If this is, in fact, dark money, this is the type of spending that undermines the presumption of impartial justice.”

The GOP ad, which first ran on Oct. 1, praises the Republican Party nominees, Justice David Viviano, Justice Brian Zahra and James Robert Redford for handing out “tough sentences” and “protecting Michigan’s children.”  

Redford and incumbent Zahra are among five candidates vying for two full terms on Nov. 4, one currently held by Zahra and the other left open by retiring Justice Michael Cavanagh. Bill Murphy, Doug Dern, and Richard Bernstein are also running. The two candidates who receive the most votes will take office.

For the third open seat, incumbent Viviano, who was appointed in 2013, will face Deborah Thomas and Kerry Morgan to complete a remaining term for that post.

The Michigan Republican Party is the first non-candidate group to air ads in the state’s Supreme Court races. In 2012, three interest groups – the state Democratic and Republican parties and Washington D.C.-based Judicial Crisis Network – together outspent the high-court candidates by roughly 3:1, according to a study by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Michigan’s Supreme Court election is officially nonpartisan, but candidates are nominated by political parties. In addition to Democratic and Republican candidates, nominees from the Libertarian Party and Natural Law Party also are running for high-court seats this year.

The following is a breakdown of candidate ad spending from FCC records in Michigan’s Supreme Court races to date:

  • Brian Zahra and David Viviano have booked 884 ads at a gross airtime cost of nearly $501,000. The candidates are splitting the expense for the joint ads.
  • Richard Bernstein has booked more than 1,700 ads at a gross airtime cost of nearly $489,000.

FCC records were identified from the following Michigan TV stations: WMYD, WADL, WXYZ, WKBD, WWJ, WNEM, WJRT, WSMH, WWMT, WZZM, WLNS, WHTV, WLAJ, WSYM, WDIV, WLUC, WPBN, WGTU, WWTV, WFQX, WLIX, WBKB, WOOD, WBUP and WTOM.

Contract purchase totals were current as of 5 p.m. EDT on Oct. 8. The FCC public files are continually updated.

Spending estimates for the Michigan Republican Party were calculated by Kantar Media/CMAG, which captures satellite data in the nation’s largest media markets. 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. Cost estimates are revised by Kantar Media/CMAG when it receives updated data, resulting in some fluctuations in the reported ad spending.