Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Political spending has kicked into high gear in the final stretch of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court race.
After an election cycle in which political contributions were consistently dominated by a single libertarian billionaire, a Democratic-aligned group has also begun pouring millions into the race.
Facing off for a vacant seat on the court are Republican Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Judge Carolyn Carluccio and Democratic Superior Court Judge Daniel McCaffery.
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that elects judges in partisan contests, and these races have attracted big money in recent years as the court has handled weighty issues like election law and redistricting, and as abortion access has become a state issue.
In their expensive messaging to voters, Carluccio has attacked McCaffery over a decade-old scandal in which his brother, former state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, resigned after sending lewd emails from his government account. McCaffery’s campaign and his allies have portrayed Carluccio as an idealogue who opposes abortion rights and has cast doubt on the validity of the 2020 presidential election.
Carluccio, who reported bringing in about $3.4 million for the year in her September campaign report, raked in $2.7 million over the past five weeks in the form of donations and in-kind contributions from groups funding ads on her behalf.
Most of her financial support throughout the campaign has come in the form of ads paid for by a political group tied to Pennsylvania’s richest man, Jeff Yass. This reporting period was no exception.
The Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a pro-school choice PAC funded almost entirely by Yass, a billionaire Montgomery County stock trader, spent $2.2 million on ads and mailers supporting Carluccio and attacking McCaffery this cycle.
In a statement to Spotlight PA earlier this month, conservative activist Matt Brouillette, the PAC’s treasurer, said the group supports Carluccio because “she is a highly qualified judge who will uphold the Constitution, apply the law as written, and not make decisions based on partisan ideology.”
Outside groups, such as the Hospital & Healthcare Association of Pennsylvania, spent another $293,000 on ads either backing Carluccio or attacking McCaffery in the past five weeks.
McCaffrey meanwhile received $1.4 million this cycle — primarily from donations — compared with the roughly $2 million he had received in the previous months of the campaign. The bulk of his money comes from the state Democratic Party, labor unions, and associations representing trial attorneys.
Those donations, however, don’t capture all of the financial support that McCaffery is receiving. They are significantly bolstered by independent expenditures from outside groups.
Independent expenditures are made without consultation with the campaign they’re supporting. The biggest group spending to support McCaffery, which is tied to the same labor and party interests that donated to the campaign, isn’t yet completely reflected in state reports.
Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness, a group that registered with the state this spring, has raised $5.2 million and spent nearly $4 million over the last month on Democrats’ statewide judicial candidates, according to its most recent campaign finance report shared by the group’s treasurer, election law attorney Adam Bonin.
Around $600,000 from PJF is already reflected in the commonwealth’s list of independent expenditures on McCaffrey’s behalf, but much is not. Bonin, however, said most of the funding is focused on the Supreme Court race.
In a statement to Spotlight PA, he framed the money as a reaction to the heavy spending from Yass and the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, describing PJF’s goals as “stopping Republicans from taking back the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” and offsetting “the billionaires who are trying to elect anti-abortion, anti-democracy Republican judges.”
According to data shared by AdImpact, a firm that tracks television ads, at least $3.2 million of PJF’s spending has been used to reserve TV ads in favor of McCaffery or attacking Carluccio.
Among the group’s top donors are unions — including those representing state workers, teachers, and service workers — the association representing Philadelphia trial lawyers, abortion provider Planned Parenthood, and a number of out-of-state donors and national dark money groups.
Around $800,000 more in independent expenditures on McCaffery’s behalf have come from groups like the ACLU and the Working Families Party, and include ads and mailers attacking Carluccio.
All told, the Supreme Court race has attracted at least $12.6 million and counting since the primary. In 2015, by comparison, total spending on Supreme Court elections hit $16.5 million with three seats open.
No matter who wins the high court’s vacant seat, it won’t flip the balance of power; four of the current justices are Democrats and two are Republicans.
However, the outcome could make a big difference in the court’s partisan makeup later in the decade, when several judges are up for retention.
BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.