Outside Spending in West Virginia Supreme Court Race Nears $3 million

May 6, 2016

New York, NY – With only days left before West Virginia’s May 10 Supreme Court election, five outside groups have spent more than $2.9 million in the race, according to a Brennan Center for Justice analysis of state disclosure forms. Five candidates are vying for one seat on the bench.

Three groups are airing television ads in the Mountain State, a fourth is airing radio ads, and a fifth is putting out mailers. According to a Brennan Center analysis of television advertisements in the race, negative ads made up 31 percent of all spots as of May 5, with all coming from outside groups. The television ads can be viewed on the Brennan Center’s Buying Time website. 

The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based group whose mission is to elect “down-ballot, state-level Republican officeholders,” has pumped by far the most money into the race, spending $2,005,875 on television ads supporting Beth Walker and opposing Bill Wooton and Darrell McGraw, according to disclosure records. That figure is more than double what the RSLC had disclosed eight days ago, and more than three times what any individual candidate or other outside group has reported spending in the election. The RSLC is primarily funded by business interests.

According to Bankrolling the Bench, a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the RSLC was the biggest multi-state spender in supreme court races in the 2013-14 cycle, spending $3.4 million across four state supreme court elections and one local court race. So far in the 2015-16 election cycle, the RSLC has already nearly equaled that amount. Previously, it spent an estimated $1.2 million on state supreme court races in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arkansas, according to estimates by Kantar Media/CMAG and state disclosure documents.

Disclosure records also show that four other groups have spent money in the West Virginia Supreme Court election:

  • Just Courts for West Virginia Political Action Committee, which is funded primarily by plaintiffs’ attorneys, has spent $496,366 on media opposing candidate Beth Walker.
  • The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has spent $317,154 supporting Beth Walker.  
  • West Virginians for Fair Courts, which received funding from West Virginian Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and the American Tort Reform Association, report spending $104,307 on mailers in favor of Walker.
  • Moving West Virginia Forward BICPAC, which is funded by the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, has spent $54,600 in radio ads supporting Beth Walker.  

Ad totals are current as of 1:00 p.m. ET on May 6.

“This flood of money into West Virginia’s supreme court election is deeply troubling,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and co-author of Bankrolling the Bench. “It is vital that judges decide cases based on their understanding of the law, and not out of worries about where they will get their next donation, or what the next attack ad will say. West Virginia, it’s worth noting, is one of two states that has taken important steps to mitigate that risk by introducing a public financing system. Public financing gives candidates the opportunity to run competitive campaigns without needing to rely on special interest dollars.” 

“Once large sums of money start pouring into campaigns and mudslinging commences on our televisions and throughout the web, it is very discouraging for us,” said Natalie Thompson, a co-coordinator of WV Citizens for Clean Elections. “West Virginia is in bad need of a fair democracy, and issues in our state should be aided with case-by-case decisions that are being made by our supreme court justices, without influence. When the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations enter our courtrooms, West Virginians pay the price with a state government that fails to take into account the needs of all of our citizens. That is a cost we can’t afford to keep paying and a securely funded public financing policy is the answer.”

West Virginia is no stranger to outside dollars. In 2004, Brent Benjamin, who is now seeking re-election, benefitted from more than $3 million in outside spending by Don Blankenship. Blankenship was the head of Massey Energy Co., which had a case en route to the state supreme court at the time of the election. Benjamin won a seat on the court and then refused to recuse himself from the case. His failure to recuse was later ruled a violation of due process by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Spending by outside groups has become increasingly prominent in supreme court elections across the country. According to Bankrolling the Bench, 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 five candidates in West Virginia are incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin, former state legislator William “Bill” Wooton, attorney Beth Walker, attorney Wayne King, and former state Attorney General Darrell McGraw, Jr. Benjamin and Wooton are both participating in the state’s public financing system.

According to the state disclosure website, the candidates have reported the following fundraising as of April 24:

  • Justice 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.
  • Walker has reported raising a total of $199,926. She also reports two loans of $250,000 each from her husband, Michael Walker, to her campaign.
  • McGraw has reported raising a total of $72,157, and reported loaning his campaign $1,360.
  • King has reported raising a total of $200, and reported loaning his campaign a total of $14,160 and receiving a loan of $600 from his wife Sandra King.