Outside Spending in West Virginia Supreme Court Race Tops $1.1 Million

April 28, 2016

New York, NY – With less than two weeks to go before Election Day on May 10, four outside groups have spent more than $1.1 million in the West Virginia Supreme Court race, where five candidates are vying for one open seat on the bench, according to a Brennan Center for Justice analysis of state disclosure forms and data from Kantar Media/CMAG.

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 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.

Three groups began airing television ads this week in the Mountain State, and a fourth group is airing radio ads. The television ads can be viewed on the Brennan Center’s Buying Time website. 

Disclosure records show the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has spent $169,414 in support of candidate Beth Walker, an attorney. The group is running a television ad calling Walker a “tough, fair, conservative judge.” The ad brings national presidential politics into the conversation, contrasting Walker with President Barack Obama’s nominees who have “waged war on our jobs,” and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Another outside group, Just Courts for West Virginia Political Action Committee, has spent $229,000 in opposition to Beth Walker, according to disclosure reports. The group is running an ad criticizing Walker for her ties to Don Blankenship, the former Chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Company, who was recently convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety rules.

A third group, 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 Darrell McGraw, Jr., according to state disclosures. The group’s new ad characterizes McGraw as using tax dollars for personal reasons.

RSLC was also active in state supreme court races in Wisconsin and Arkansas this year. According to Bankrolling the Bench, the RSLC was the biggest multi-state spender in supreme court races in the 2013-2014 cycle, spending $3.4 million across four state supreme court elections and one local court race.  

Finally, state disclosure forms indicate that 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.

Ad totals are current as of 10:00 a.m. ET on April 28.

“Outside spending has drastically changed the tone of this race,” said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and co-author of Bankrolling the Bench. “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.” 

“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 WV Citizen Action Group and a co-coordinator of WV 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.”

Candidates include 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, four candidates have reported the following as of March 25:

  • 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.
  • 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 filed a disclosure report through April 24 and has reported raising a total of $199,926. She also reports two loans of $250,000 from her husband, Michael Walker, to her campaign.