Surge of Last Minute Outside Spending Hits State Supreme Court Races

October 30, 2014

New York, NY – With less than a week until Election Day, special interest groups have dramatically increased TV ad spending to influence state Supreme Court races in Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, and Ohio. Outside groups have spent nearly $2.1 million on TV ad buys in these states for the November general election, with nearly $1 million spent over the last week, according to FCC filings, campaign financial disclosures, and estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake. 

When spending by political parties is also included, total non-candidate TV ad spending jumps to nearly $4.5 million for the general election. In recent years, TV ads by political parties have had similar content and themes as ads sponsored by interest groups, and political parties have often served as conduits for special interest money.

Illinois has seen the most TV ad spending by outside groups in the general election, totaling more than $1.1 million. The only political party to spend on TV ads this election is Michigan’s Republican Party, which has spent almost $2.4 million.

Since January, outside groups, political parties, and candidates have spent an estimated $12.1 million on TV ads in 10 states.

“Special interest groups have realized that it doesn’t take much money to reshape an entire state court compared to high-cost elections for statewide political offices,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “At the same time, judges are forced to keep pace with deep-pocketed out of state groups instead of ruling on cases. It’s a lose-lose for judges and voters alike.”

“Partisans and special interests often rely on last-minute campaign ads to turn out their base and tip judicial contests,” said Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake. “Voters get a barrage of nasty ads and scary music, but little of the information they need to make informed choices.”

TV Ad War Begins in Illinois

One group, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which announced a “Judicial Fairness Initiative” earlier in the year to support conservative judges and candidates, spent $141,020 in Illinois this past week on a TV ad supporting state Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, according to estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG. Justice Karmeier is seeking retention for a new 10-year term. Substantial additional ad time is likely in the lead-up to the election. In total, the RSLC has reportedly spent $950,000 to support Justice Karmeier, according to an RSLC spokesperson.

RSLC’s ad follows two recent Campaign for 2016-sponsored TV attack ads targeting Justice Karmeier for overturning multimillion dollar judgments against Philip Morris and State Farm in two high-profile cases after the companies reportedly “push[ed] four million dollars” into Justice Karmeier’s 2004 election. Justice Karmeier declined requests for recusal in both cases and disputes the characterization of the companies’ involvement in his campaign. Campaign for 2016 doled out more than $1 million to run the ads this month and has raised more than $1.8 million from the lawyers and law firms involved in the Philip Morris and State Farm cases, according to campaign finance disclosures.

Americans for Prosperity Enters Montana Race

Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-linked dark money group, threw their hat in the ring in Montana over the weekend sponsoring two TV ads attacking Justice Mike Wheat for his “extreme politics” and “history of supporting extreme partisan measures.” Up-to-date TV spending estimates for these ads are not yet available.

The RSLC has also booked more than $168,000 in TV ad purchases in Montana through Election Day, according to FCC data, where they ran a TV ad supporting state Supreme Court candidate Lawrence VanDyke in his race against Justice Mike Wheat. Montanans for Liberty and Justice, a pro-Wheat group, has spent $180,180 on airtime, FCC records show. Together, RSLC and Montanans for Liberty and Justice account for nearly 85 percent of TV ad buys placed in the Montana race.

Special Interest Group Buys Ads in Michigan

In Michigan, the Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom, a group that describes its mission as “to protect and defend individual freedoms and individual rights,” spent roughly $146,000 over the weekend on an ad supporting Republican Justices David Viviano and Brian Zahra for “throwing the book at violent child predators,” according to estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG. In 2007 and 2008, the Center for Individual Freedom spent $1.8 million on ads for Supreme Court races in Pennsylvania and Alabama, according to a study by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The Michigan Republican Party has also spent an estimated $2,386,250 on TV ads supporting David Viviano, Brian Zahra, and James Robert Redford, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG.

DC Group Begins Airing Ads in Ohio

In Ohio, a group called American Freedom Builders — which the Plain Dealer described as “a conservative, secretive advocacy group with national ties and a strong connection to Ohio Gov. John Kasich” — has purchased roughly $357,000 in TV ad buys through Election Day, FCC records show. The group ran a TV ad over the weekend supporting Republican Justice Judith French for upholding the death sentence and tough criminal sentences.

First Outside Spending in North Carolina’s General Election

Justice for All NC began airing an ad yesterday in North Carolina’s general election in support of state Supreme Court candidate Mike Robinson. The RSLC contributed $400,000 to Justice for All NC this week, and contributed $900,000 to the same group in the May primary. Justice for All NC ran attack ads against incumbent Justice Robin Hudson in that primary, accusing her of siding with child molesters in a case.

The following is a breakdown of total TV ad spending by state for the general election:

Totals reflect data from FCC filings, campaign financial disclosures, and estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG.


  • Candidate Total - none documented
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $1,141,720
  • TOTAL - $1,141,720


  • Candidate Total - $1,790,472
  • Party Total - $2,386,250
  • Group Total - $145,980
  • TOTAL - $4,322,702


  • Candidate Total - $62,064
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $348,740
  • TOTAL - $410,804

North Carolina

  • Candidate Total - $1,946,944
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $94,675
  • TOTAL - $2,041,619

New Mexico

  • Candidate Total - none documented
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $74,965
  • TOTAL - $74,965


  • Candidate Total - $780,915
  • Party Total - none documented
  • Group Total - $356,975
  • TOTAL - $1,137,890

Total TV ad spending for general election only: $9.1 million
Total TV ad spending for 2014: $12.1 million

NOTE: Many ads were booked jointly by two candidates. In some instances, this reflects the candidates’ decision to run combined campaign ads together. In other instances, it reflects several TV buys that were made by one ad agency representing multiple candidates.

FCC advertising data are based on publicly available contract files uploaded to the FCC website. Please note that the FCC site is continually updated, and totals currently displayed on the FCC site may have changed since the publication of totals in this release.        

Spending estimates from Kantar Media/CMAG are based on captured 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.