Spending in Pennsylvania Supreme Court Race Tops Out Over $16.5 Million

November 6, 2015

A post-Election Day tally of documented spending in Pennsylvania’s 2015 Supreme Court race shows total spending rose to $16,536,492, further surpassing the previous national record for a Supreme Court race, according to an analysis of state disclosures and television advertising by the nonpartisan organizations the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake.

The latest data incorporates spending information obtained on and immediately after Election Day. On that day, November 3, documented spending in the race had already reached $15,850,297, breaking the previous national record of $15.19 million set in Illinois in 2004. Pennsylvania’s prior record for total spending in a state Supreme Court race was $10,519,717 in 2007.

Candidates raised at least $13,097,912 during the 2015 primary and general elections, according to publicly filed state campaign disclosures and 24-hour contribution reports. Pennsylvania’s previous record for candidate fundraising, set in 2007, was $9,464,975.

Democrats and their allies outspent Republicans and their allies in the race, and the three Democratic candidates, Judges Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, and David N. Wecht, swept all three open seats.

“These spending patterns suggest that certain groups, such as plaintiff’s attorneys and unions, sought to influence the outcome of this election through their contributions,” said Matt Menendez, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Of even greater concern, however, are the groups, such as the PA Alliance and the Republican State Leadership Committee, whose contributors’ identities are not fully disclosed by Election Day.”

“Overblown campaign spending in state court races is a giant and growing storm that threatens justice,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Executive Director of Justice at Stake. “Our recent research shows that in the 2013-14 cycle, more than 90 percent of contested state Supreme Court races were won by the candidate who raised the most money. The Pennsylvania race – the most expensive of its kind in history – confirms that finding. We need to break this cycle by moving away from contested elections for judges.” 

“Now that the costliest state Supreme Court race in U.S. history has been run in Pennsylvania, the state has an opportunity to set a national example by rejecting these expensive and politicized races,” said Lynn A. Marks, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “Judges don’t belong on the campaign trail and lawyers and groups who are often in court shouldn’t be dictating who wins or loses. We’re encouraged to see merit selection gaining traction as a viable reform with bipartisan support.” 

Where the Money Came From

The Committee for a Better Tomorrow, a group largely funded by attorneys, was a major source of contributions to Democratic candidates. They accounted for 39.7 percent of Donohue’s total contributions, 16.9 percent of Dougherty’s total contributions, and 24.3 percent of Wecht’s total contributions. Donations to Republican candidates did not come from one clear source or group. Gary Lowenthal, an individual, contributed $500,000 to Mike George in early 2015, accounting for 56.6 percent of George’s total haul.

Both the Democratic and Republican candidates saw outside groups spend in their favor. The Republican State Leadership Committee independently spent almost $900,000 on television advertisements praising Anne Covey and Judith Olson and criticizing Dougherty. A search of the publicly filed state campaign disclosures and 24-hour contribution reports does not yield any information about their donors.

According to the publicly filed state campaign disclosure and 24-hour contribution reports, Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, which independently spent $2.53 million on TV advertisements attacking the Republican candidates, received 47 percent of its contributions from identifiable union groups. An additional 23 percent of its funding came from the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, and 19 percent of its funding came from the PA Alliance, a group that has not disclosed its contributors.

The Brennan Center for Justice, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics have documented spending in state Supreme Court elections since 2000 in the New Politics of Judicial Elections series. The groups issued their latest report last week tracking spending in the 2013-14 judicial campaign cycle.

Total Fundraising and TV Spending Figures

Records on file before 12 p.m. ET on November 5 indicate the following fundraising totals for primary and general election candidates: 

  • Christine Donohue (D): $1,951,410.52
  • Kevin Dougherty (D): $3,984,374.93
  • David N. Wecht (D): $2,880,604.00
  • Anne Covey (R): $984,654.62
  • Michael A. George (R): $882,918.67
  • Judith Olson (R):  $616,329.70
  • Paul Panepinto (I): $234,000.00
  • Six primary losers raised a total of $1,563,619.85

Counting ads that already have aired in both the primary and general elections, total estimated airtime spending is $11,072,460 million through November 3, according to the most recent estimates by CMAG/Kantar Media. Non-candidate groups spent a total of $3,438,580 on television airtime. Videos of television ads from CMAG/Kantar Media are available at Brennan’s Buying Time 2015 ad tracking website.

According to the most recent CMAG/Kantar estimates of television ads that have aired, candidates and interest groups spent the following on airtime for both the primary and general election, through November 3:

  • Christine Donohue (D): $1,218,530
  • Kevin Dougherty (D): $3,009,700
  • David N. Wecht (D): $1,836,210
  • Pennsylvania Republican Party: $7,690
  • Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform: $2,532,800
  • Anne Covey (R): $422,330
  • Michael A. George (R): $356,760
  • Judith Olson (R): $306,180
  • Republican State Leadership Committee: $898,090 
  • Anne Lazarus (D; primary only): $287,120
  • John Foradora (D; primary only): $197,050

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The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice. We work to hold our political institutions and laws accountable to the twin American ideals of democracy and equal justice for all. The Center’s work ranges from voting rights to campaign finance reform, from ending mass incarceration to preserving Constitutional protection in the fight against terrorism. Part think tank, part advocacy group, part cutting-edge communications hub, we start with rigorous research. We craft innovative policies. And we fight for them — in Congress and the states, the courts, and in the court of public opinion.

Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan campaign working to keep America’s courts fair and impartial. Justice at Stake and its 50-plus state and national partners work for reforms to keep politics and special interests out of the courtroom—so judges can protect our Constitution, our rights and the rule of law. Justice at Stake also educates Americans about the role of the courts, promotes diversity on the bench, and supports adequate resources for courts.

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to ensure that all Pennsylvanians can come to our courts for justice with confidence that the most qualified, fair, and impartial judges will preside over their cases.