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Spending on Pa. Supreme Court race broke records, set precedent for outside influence

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA |

Outside the Forks Township Community Center in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, Election Day 2023.
Matt Smith / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — The candidates for Pennsylvania Supreme Court and their allies spent at least $22 million to influence the race’s outcome, with much of that total used to persuade voters that the future of abortion access was on the line.

That number is likely to rise as final campaign finance reports are filed later this month.

Democrat Daniel McCaffery scored a decisive victory over Republican Carolyn Carluccio, buoyed by last-minute spending on TV ads that painted the GOP candidate as “deceptive” and “dangerous.”

Those ads were funded by state and national political organizations that emphasized the importance of the state Supreme Court in preserving Pennsylvania’s abortion rights in a post-Roe v. Wade reality.

“​​We've been saying and screaming from the rooftops for many cycles and many years that this is a winning issue,” said Signe Espinoza, executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Pennsylvania political arm, “and I think we've proven that.”

The race was also marked by a dramatic increase in independent expenditures — money spent by groups that want to influence an election but are not allowed to coordinate with a candidate’s campaign. Unlike PACs that give to candidates, groups that spend independently are permitted to take cash from “dark money” organizations that don’t publicize their donors.

Jeff Coleman, a Republican political operative, said Carluccio was a good candidate but she was hurt by both the ads that attacked and supported her.

Ads that targeted her cited endorsements by the PA Pro-Life Federation and the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, as well as a resume that said she would be a “defender of … all life under the law.” And the ads meant to help her may have backfired by taking what Coleman called a “salacious path.”

“There was more smoke around [Carluccio’s] candidacy, and you never really got a sense of who she was,” Coleman said.

Republicans who spoke to Spotlight PA said the party is now looking to find a new message — or more money — to compete in the future.

“Until our side gets the same fire that you and I have to elect principled candidates, we will continue to be massively outspent by deep-pocketed special interests,” conservative political operative Matt Brouillette said in an email to supporters after the election.

‘I think we should be above it’

The money that special interests, national groups, and individual donors dropped into this year’s high court election easily broke records for spending on a single court seat in Pennsylvania.

Competitive court races have seen big spending several times in the past decade, but this year blew previous years’ totals out of the water. In the last race for a state Supreme Court seat, in 2021, the two general election candidates and their supporters spent $9.1 million in total, compared with at least $22 million this year.

The primary reason for the sharp increase is an explosion in spending by two political action committees, including one funded almost entirely by one man, and another allowed to take untraceable political donations.

Department of State records show Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness spent at least $6.5 million to support McCaffery, who is currently a Superior Court judge. Commonwealth Leaders Fund spent $4.4 million to back Carluccio, who is a Montgomery County judge.

Combined, that's almost half of the total money spent in the race.

Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness was funded by a mix of sources, including millions of dollars from traditional Democratic allies in organized labor and the Philadelphia trial bar. Out-of-state billionaires such as Oklahoma-based Lynn Schusterman and Washington-based Gaye Pigott also made big donations. Both have a history of donating to Democratic or pro-abortion-access causes.

Commonwealth Leaders Fund continues to be mostly financed by Pennsylvania’s wealthiest individual: Jeff Yass, a billionaire Montgomery County stock trader. Yass has donated tens of millions of dollars to a web of state PACs connected to Brouillette.

Other big spenders on Democrats’ behalf included the PACs for the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Everytown for Gun Safety, all of which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television and digital ads during the final weeks of the campaign.

GOP operative Coleman said that candidates who win spring primaries can traditionally expect to have “a wagonload of new friends” to financially back them in November.

This year, “I think the Democrats had a bigger wagonload of national interest groups, primarily driven by abortion,” Coleman said.

In public comments leading up to Election Day, both candidates pushed back on the spending, blaming the proliferation of TV ads and mailers funded by outside organizations for lowering the tone of the race and spreading ad hominem attacks.

The ads targeting McCaffery, which were largely funded by Commonwealth Leaders Fund, cast him as a corrupt political insider. They also sought to tie the candidate to his brother, former Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who resigned in 2014 after sending lewd emails from a government account.

Fair Courts America, a super PAC mostly bankrolled by conservative Illinois shipping magnate Richard Uihlein, also financed $735,000 in attack ads directed at McCaffery.

In an online video, McCaffery said the ads came from “billionaires and corporate interests spending millions of dollars.”

“We stand for middle-class values, we stand for working men and women all across Pennsylvania,” he continued. “We will not let this seat be bought.”

Carluccio also took issue with the ads and called for some kind of institutional change in the way judicial races work in Pennsylvania.

“I really think that we need to take a close look at this,” she said at a campaign event a few days before the election. “One of us is going to end up on the Supreme Court … and I don't think that's a good look for our judiciary. And I think we should be above it.”

In an emailed statement, Mark Nicastre, spokesperson for Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness, said the PAC had an interest in the election “because of the stakes for Pennsylvanians' fundamental freedoms and the unrelenting attack on their rights by the US Supreme Court and well-funded, conservative special interests.

“Pennsylvanians saw the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary that protected their votes in 2020,” said Nicastre, referencing a state Supreme Court ruling that rejected an attempt to stop the certification of the presidential election. “Pennsylvanians saw what happened when the conservatives on the US Supreme Court had the opportunity to take away the right to choose.”

In a post-election email to supporters, Brouillette — who helped Republicans outspend Democrats to win a seat on the high court in 2021 — decried his opponents’ sudden spending edge.

"In short, we are up against nefarious, national special interests that have huge incentives to engage in Pennsylvania politics. And, frankly put, many lovers of freedom outside of Pa.— and, to some degree, even inside of Pa. — don’t yet seem to have a matching incentive,” Brouillette wrote.

Pa. campaign money gets darker

Another new factor in the race was the heavy use of independent expenditures, the category of spending by groups that want to influence an election but are not allowed to coordinate with a candidate’s campaign.

Under Pennsylvania’s notoriously lax campaign finance rules, individuals can donate unlimited funds to candidates for state office.

Corporations and unions cannot give money directly from their treasuries to candidates. But they can donate to certain state political committees that can in turn make independent expenditures.

Such spending in judicial elections has sharply increased in recent years. In 2015, with three open state Supreme Court seats up for grabs, outside groups spent roughly $3 million on independent expenditures.

This year, the total rose to nearly $10 million.

Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness, which was established this spring, has reported spending $6.5 million this year on independent expenditures, mostly on ads that cast Carluccio as an abortion opponent who questioned the results of the 2020 election.

Roughly 30% of the money that Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness reported raising this year — $1.6 million — came from three groups with opaque backing.

Dark money groups, made possible by the Citizens United ruling, are not legally required to report their donors. They cannot give money directly to candidates, but they can donate to PACs like Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness.

The largest such donation was $700,000 from the Philadelphia-based group Pennsylvania Alliance Action. According to its most recent IRS form, the PAC’s mission is to “promote and pursue nonpartisan progressive policies.”

The alliance is chaired by Chuck Hadley, a former partner at a health care investment firm and an unsuccessful Democratic state House candidate. The alliance has raised at least $15 million since it became tax-exempt in 2020, according to IRS filings. It also has funded grants to progressive organizations such as the New Pennsylvania Project and Make the Road Action PA.

The alliance shares a mailing address with a number of Democratic-alligned groups and individuals, including top fundraising firm Rittenhouse Political Partners and the law office of attorney Adam Bonin, who is also listed as the treasurer for Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness. The alliance’s telephone number is also the same as that of Rittenhouse.

Hadley did not respond to questions about the alliance’s donors, but in a statement said the group was created by “like-minded Pennsylvanians” to fight against “right-wing billionaires” who are “spending hundreds of millions to take away our freedoms and make life harder for everyday Pennsylvanians.”

Aaron McKean, legal counsel at the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, said spending by opaque groups has been legal for the past decade after the Citizens United ruling. But he argued that voters have a right to know who funds the messaging that tries to sway their vote.

“The laws that apply to campaigns and elections should focus on getting back to that original source of the money, so folks can’t hide behind a run-of-the-mill committee name,” McKean told Spotlight PA.

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