Candidates for the North Carolina Supreme Court have raised and spent a record amount on campaign ads this year, the first election since the state legislature repealed the state’s program to publicly finance judicial campaigns. Meanwhile, the campaigns have attracted surprisingly little spending from outside interest groups until this week, when a familiar troubadour made a last-minute return to television.
According to Justice at Stake, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization that monitors state courts, the eight candidates have spent over $1.6 million on television campaign ads. That’s still less than was spent on the one Supreme Court election in 2012, although the vast majority of that money came from outside spending groups, not the two candidates.
Robin Hudson, who was targeted in May’s primary with an outside interest group attack ad — one that many commentators on both sides deemed unfair — leads all candidates with fundraising through the third quarter of the campaign, which ended Oct. 18. Hudson reported raising $687,047, while her opponent, Eric Levinson, was close behind, reporting $553,157 in contributions.
The biggest fundraising disparity is in the Chief Justice race, where Mark Martin reported $630,371 in contributions, compared to $190,574 for his opponent, Ola Lewis. Despite the disparity, Lewis reported having $53,053 cash on hand compared to $29,650 for Martin.
In other races, Mike Robinson reported raising $374,595 while his opponent Cheri Beasley reported raising $277,120. Robinson had $41,811 in cash on hand, compared to $4,407 for Beasley. Bob Hunter reported raising $367,049, while Sam Ervin’s third quarter report could not be viewed online due to a technical glitch that appears to have occurred on the State Board of Election’s end. Through just the second quarter, Ervin had reported raising $348,183.
Most of that money has been earmarked for TV ads.
“The message being sent to judges is that if you want to be a judge you’ve got to be a fundraiser,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. “We’re creating a system that is asking judges to be politicians and pressuring them to raise money. That’s going to have an enormous impact on public confidence in the courts and a growing impact on who even wants to become a judge.”
The singer is back
Going into the last week of the campaign, the outside groups that had spent so heavily in 2012 and in May’s primary had remained on the sideline for the general election, not reserving television station airtime for ads in any of the judicial races. But on Oct. 26 Justice for All NC, a political action committee, reported a $400,000 donation from the Republican State Leadership Committee. Two days earlier, it had reported a $25,000 donation from a group called American Federation for Children.
In 2012, Justice for All NC was overwhelmingly the major contributor to the N.C. Judicial Coalition, which spent $1.9 million on the famous “banjo ad” in support of Paul Newby, who won a closely contested election against Ervin. In this year’s primary, Justice for All NC spent $900,000 on ads attacking Hudson, who was contesting a three-way primary.
The ad, which attempted to suggest that Hudson was soft on child molesters, was widely criticized by many, including Levinson, for being unfair. If the ad had any effect on the race, it was difficult to discern. Hudson ended up finishing first in the primary with over 42 percent of the vote and since then has cited the attacks in her campaign fundraising appeals.
According to FCC records, Justice for All NC began purchasing television time on several stations on Oct. 28, including at least two ad buys of between $40,000 and $50,000 with stations in Wilmington and Greensboro. The ads began running today and appear to feature a familiar face.
The same day the ads began to air, Innovative Advertising, the company that purchased the airtime on behalf of Justice for All NC, posted a 30-second ad on its YouTube page. The stars a guitar player—it appears to be the same actor who appeared in the pro-Newby ads—singing about judges, this time in support of Robinson, while other actors dance in a lighthearted manner in the background.
The new ad uses the same “Tough but fair” slogan from the Newby ads, but does not otherwise labor on the candidate’s crime-fighting abilities as the Newby ads did. In fact, aside from the oft-repeated chorus, “I Like Mike,” the ad is largely free of substantive content. Lawyers Weekly could not confirm that this ad would be aired in all the timeslots purchased by Justice for All NC, although one form filed with the FCC in relation to one of the ad contracts mentions Robinson by name.
Also today, Hudson, Beasley and Ervin went on a joint barnstorming press conference tour through Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh in response to the ad buy. The candidates said that attack ads undermine the court system, but the candidates said they had not yet seen the ads and could not comment on their content specifically.
Act now, time’s running out
Brandenburg said that part of the reason outside groups had not funded any TV ads for the general election so far might be that the groups felt they had taken a crack at the race in the spring and not seen any success. He said that while TV ads are not quite as effective in an age where many people watch their entertainment commercial-free, they can still be potent in some circumstances.
“In a race that is specifically low turnout, anything can make a difference, so an investment in TV, even if it’s not getting everybody, can really tip a race,” Brandenburg said. “That’s why these races are often attractive to interest groups.”
It’s not clear whether the outside groups have seen something in their private polling to suggest that the race between Beasley and Robinson would be a good investment. Public polling on the race has been scant and inconclusive. In a poll commissioned by Chapel Hill-based Public Policy Polling in September, Beasley led Robinson 13-9, with 78 percent of voters undecided. In all four Supreme Court elections PPP polled, at least 66 percent of respondents said that they were undecided.
Any last-minute spending on judicial races will be handicapped by the fact that many North Carolinians have already cast their ballots. As of the end of Tuesday, Oct. 28, 583,834 votes had already been cast. North Carolina has between 6.6 and 6.7 million registered voters, and turnout in midterm elections is usually close to half of the electorate, so perhaps as much of one-sixth of ballots had already been cast before any of independent ads began to air.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan