Buoyed by more than $3 million in outside spending from Republican and pro-business political action committees touting her candidacy and attacking challengers Darrell McGraw and Bill Wooton, Morgantown lawyer Beth Walker prevailed in West Virginia’s first nonpartisan election for the Supreme Court.
With about 70 percent of precincts reporting, Walker had a lead of more than 40,000 votes over former justice and longtime attorney general McGraw, Beckley lawyer and former legislator Wooton and incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin, who was seeking his second 12-year term on the court.
Clay County lawyer Wayne King, who ran a low-key, bare-budget campaign, was running a distant fifth in the race.
Walker said Tuesday she is looking forward to the “awesome responsibility” of being the state’s first nonpartisan justice, adding, “Obviously, we’re very excited and very grateful to the voters of West Virginia for believing in my message of a court to be nonpolitical and committed to the rule of law.”
Long championed by state Republicans, the legislation that made all judicial elections nonpartisan was one of the first bills taken up once the GOP took control of the Legislature in 2015.
However, if the intent of nonpartisan election of judges was to take politics out of Supreme Court races, it was not to be so in its first incarnation, as outside interests spent upwards of $3.5 million to influence the race, the bulk of which was spent on ads supporting Walker — who previously had run for the court as a Republican — or opposing McGraw and Wooton, both of whom had won multiple elections in the past as Democrats.
That included about $2.6 million spent by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national political action committee dedicated to electing Republicans to state-level offices.
The RSLC ads, in part, attempted to link McGraw and Wooton to President Barack Obama and criticized McGraw’s spending as attorney general and Wooton’s votes in the Legislature.
Additionally, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $500,000 on ads supporting Walker, contending that she would be a fair voice on the court, as opposed to the “liberal, lawless” judges it says Obama has appointed to federal courts.
An organization called Just Courts for WV, funded prominently by plaintiffs’ law firms, spent close to $500,000 on ads that attempted to link Walker to former Massey Energy executive Don Blankenship, noting that Walker’s campaign hired a Blankenship operative who was instrumental when Blankenship spent $3 million on negative ads in 2004 to unseat Justice Warren McGraw in an election won by Benjamin.
The outside spending dwarfed spending by the Benjamin and Wooton campaigns, who both participated in the new state program for public financing of Supreme Court campaigns.
Also intended to lessen the impact of politics on the high court race by eliminating the need for candidates to raise large sums of cash, often from law firms and lawyers who could have cases before the court, the program provided the candidates with a maximum of $550,000 each.
In March, Walker’s campaign went to court to block public campaign financing for the two rivals, citing technicalities in their submitting of funding requests to the State Election Commission, but the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Benjamin and Wooton.
Last week, Wooton sent a letter to Walker calling for her to demand that the RSLC and other “dark money” groups stop promoting her candidacy, stating, “They seem to believe, as Don Blankenship did 12 years ago, that they can purchase a seat on West Virginia’s Supreme Court for a candidate who will do their bidding.”
Asked about the outside money, Walker said Tuesday, “All I know is we had a plan and we spent 11 months traveling all around the state, talking to as many voters as we could about my conservative vision for the court.”
Walker said she is excited that her message resonated with voters.
McGraw, a late entry to the race, also ran a comparatively low-budget campaign, having raised just over $72,000, as of the pre-primary reporting period, relying on name recognition from years as a progressive Democratic stalwart.
Overall, the five candidates reported spending a total of $1.6 million through April 24, according to pre-primary disclosures filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Meanwhile, among down-ticket statewide races Tuesday, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant rebuffed a challenge from one-term Delegate Patsy Trecost, D-Harrison, leading by a 3-to-1 margin at press time, and will face Republican Mac Warner in November. Warner easily defeated Barry Holstein in the GOP primary.
Ann Urling had a sizable lead over one-term Delegate Larry W. Faircloth in the Republican primary for state treasurer, with the winner facing five-term Treasurer John Perdue in the general election.
Meanwhile, in the Democratic primary for state auditor, former longtime Auditor’s Office staffer Mary Ann Claytor had a notable lead over Jason Pizatella, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and former acting administration secretary, who had been endorsed by outgoing auditor Glen Gainer. Shinnston businessman Robin Righter was running a distant third in the race.
The winner will face Delegate J.B. McCuskey, who ran unopposed in the GOP primary, in the race to succeed longtime auditor Gainer, who will step down from office later this month.
Reach Phil Kabler at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.