CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia's Supreme Court race is the most expensive of the May 8 primary, with the six Democrats seeking nomination for the two seats up this year together spending $1.4 million.
The candidates reported their totals on April 22 along with combined balances of nearly $590,000, indicating that the price tag will could increase significantly during their primary contest's final two weeks.
Former State Bar President Tish Chafin led the pack for spending at $732,000, just shy of half the overall total. While Chafin raised around $170,000 from contributors, she loaned her campaign $1 million to provide the bulk of its funds.
Chafin, 48, practices in a trial law firm with her husband, state Sen. Truman Chafin of Mingo County. Her personal wealth allowed her campaign by far the largest balance of the six candidates, just over $438,000.
Justice Robin Davis, the sole incumbent running, spent $543,127 in her third statewide bid for her seat. First elected to an unexpired term in 1996, Davis has self-funded her latest campaign with $360,000. But Davis has also raised $239,000, the most among the candidates.
Greenbrier County Circuit Judge Jim Rowe has loaned his campaign $10,700 and seen it raise another $157,400. Rowe had $57,531 left as of April 22, a slightly larger balance than Davis', after his campaign spent $110,600.
Rowe had the strongest fundraising of the field during the March 21-April 22 pre-primary reporting period, attracting more than $60,600.
Wood County Circuit Judge J.D. Beane had a $35,500 balance after gathering nearly $90,000, solely from fundraising events. A former House of Delegates member, Beane noted the ethical rules that require judicial candidate to seek all funds through a campaign committee.
"As a legislator, I can seek endorsements and I can be handed contributions. I can actually solicit help," Beane said. "As a judge, under the judicial code, I can't do that."
Supreme Court law clerk Louis Palmer has provided nearly all of the $30,000 reported by his campaign, and had $1,120 on hand. Rounding out the pack, candidate H. John Rogers has sworn off campaign contributions and is conducting his bid out-of-pocket. The Wetzel County lawyer reported spending around $2,500.
West Virginia's Supreme Court races have attracted national attention for the money spent both by candidates and outside groups and individuals seeking to influence the outcome. With each seat up this year carrying a 12-year term, the trend is expected to continue, said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
The Brennan Center tracks the campaign finances of judicial races nationally, and is critical of the escalating price tag. It reported earlier this year that fundraising in state Supreme Court-level races across the country increased from $5.9 million during the 1989-1990 elections to $45.6 million during 2007-2009.
"There has been a fair amount of money being spent even before the primary," Skaggs said of the West Virginia primary race. He added, "West Virginia is among only a handful of states that have seen robust TV ads in the primary season."
Davis, Chafin, Rowe and Palmer have all released TV spots. Davis began airing hers in December, and has produced at least six different ads according to a tally kept by the Brennan Center.
West Virginia is experimenting with a program that offers public funds to Supreme Court candidates in lieu of traditional fundraising. But just one hopeful, Republican Allen Loughry, sought and qualified for the public financing. A longtime Supreme Court law clerk, Loughry and Jefferson County Circuit Judge John Yoder are assured the GOP nomination on May 8 as their party's only candidates.
"That's been a shame from our standpoint," said Skaggs, as the center supports public financing. "When judicial candidates rely on public dollars, you don't get the same public perceptions that a judge might be inclined to favor whoever gave to their campaign. ... It removes the perception that judges will favor contributors over non-contributors."
As expected, lawyers and their immediate families and staffers account for about half the contributions larger than $250 received by the Democratic candidates. Donors who give more than $250 must disclose their addresses, occupations and employers. These larger-dollar contributions provided 87 percent of all the funds raised by the Democrats.
Steptoe & Johnson reflects the largest source of campaign cash among the law firms identified in candidate filings. Those at the firm gave $11,500, mostly to Rowe. Chafin also received contributions from that source, as did Davis and
Those affiliated with the Frankovich, Anatekis, Colantonio & Simon firm have contributed $9,500, to Chafin and Davis. Lawyers and others at the Fitzsimmons Law Firm have $8,000 to both as well, while those at Jackson Kelly provided the same amount to Davis and Rowe.
Overall, Davis received the most from lawyers, at least $137,750, with Chafin attracting $85,600 and Rowe, $54,410. Davis, Rowe and Beane each received at least $11,000 from health care sources - physicians, hospital executives and their political actions committees. Chafin received at least $5,000 from these sources.
Rowe and Davis also each collected at least $12,000 from accountants, bankers, real estate officials and others in the financial services sector. Chafin received at least $7,300 from this area and Beane, $4,300.
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.