Dems hope to claim all 3 open seats on Pa.'s highest court
HARRISBURG, Pa. - For the Republicans running for three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Tuesday's election has to be daunting.
Of the $10.5 million in campaign contributions reported by the seven candidates through Monday, more than three-quarters flowed to the Democrats.
And in a campaign in which paid media plays a key role in defining the candidates, TV ads supporting the Democrats were airing more than twice as often as pro-GOP ads through Monday, based on an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity of commercials sponsored by the candidates and two outside political committees on opposite sides in the race.
Politically, the election is important because of the unprecedented number of openings on the seven-seat court, the result of resignations by two disgraced justices and the retirement of a third.
Democrats are hoping to capture all three seats to lock in a majority for at least the next decade that could play a crucial role in the legislative redistricting that will follow the 2020 census. The winners will serve 10-year terms.
But turnout is expected to be low, likely less than 20 percent of registered voters, and the outcome will hinge on factors such as which party turns out more voters, regional fluctuations in voter interest and whether voters will bother to cast all three of their votes for the high court, said Terry Madonna, a political affairs professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
"There are so many things that make a difference in these elections," Madonna said.
One is money.
Democrats have plenty, thanks largely to Philadelphia trial lawyers, whose Committee for a Better Tomorrow gave Democratic candidates more than $2 million, and to organized labor groups including the Philadelphia local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose business manager is the brother of one of the candidates, Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty.
Both sides have received contributions from the upper echelons of other branches of state government, which may signal that this could be a watershed election for the court and those who go before it.
Gov. Tom Wolf's political committee, Rebuild Pennsylvania, hired three out-of-state consultants to provide about $150,000 in research for Dougherty and the other Democratic candidates, Superior Court judges David Wecht and Christine Donohue.
In the Legislature, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati's political committee recently funneled $100,000 through the PA Future Fund, a political committee led by GOP National Committeeman Bob Asher, to help the Republican candidates for the Supreme Court and the two intermediate appellate courts.
Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he filtered his contribution through Asher's committee because it seemed "little bit more of an ethical way" to do it than simply writing checks to the candidates, Superior Court Judge Judy Olson, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Adams County Judge Mike George.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, has reported contributions totaling $65,000 to Olson's campaign.
The Pennsylvania Business Council, a business lobbying group that typically leans Republican, has a new angle this year. It's urging voters to "make history" by electing the three female candidates to shake up the traditionally male-dominated court.
"Doing the same old same old isn't going to get you anywhere," said council spokesman Christopher Nicholas.
Of course, there may be a method to the council's madness. Since two of the women are Republicans, electing only female candidates would deprive the Democrats of the majority they are desperately seeking.