- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The cash is flowing in Pennsylvania’s hotly contested campaigns for an unprecedented three open seats on the state Supreme Court, as contributions to the dozen candidates surpassed the $5 million mark and TV advertising intensified heading into Tuesday’s primary election.

Nearly half of the money has been spent on air time as the would-be nominees work to bolster their name recognition and prepare to take their chances in statewide balloting that is limited to the state’s roughly 7 million registered Democrats and Republicans. Turnout in judicial elections is typically small.

“If we get 20 percent statewide, break out the champagne,” quipped Terry Madonna, who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Six Democrats and six Republicans are competing in the primary. The top three vote-getters in each party will compete in the Nov. 3 general election for a 10-year term on the state’s highest court.

The statewide ballot also includes a pair of Democratic contests for one open seat each on the Superior and Commonwealth courts, the state’s intermediate appellate courts. In heavily Democratic Philadelphia, the outcome of a six-way mayoral primary will all but decide who will lead the state’s largest city for the next four years.

The Supreme Court campaign is likely to set a state record for judicial campaign spending. Since the final pre-primary campaign finance reports were filed May 8, the candidates have been required to report contributions of $500 or more to the state within 24 hours. In the week that ended Friday, they reported $765,000 in new contributions that pushed the campaign total to $5.2 million.

Kevin Dougherty, a Philadelphia judge whose nearly $1.5 million in overall contributions make him the leading fundraiser among the candidates, reported $245,000 in contributions during the week. Most of the money came in big chunks from several labor groups, but the biggest was $100,000 from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose business manager is the judge’s brother.

“Virtually all of it” will go toward buying TV air time, said his campaign spokesman, Ken Snyder.

David Wecht, a Superior Court judge from Pittsburgh, reported about $58,000 in new contributions that included $20,000 from a Teamsters local in Philadelphia and nudged his total to $916,000. Like Dougherty, Wecht carries the Democratic Party’s endorsement.

Jefferson County Judge John Foradora, a Democrat, reported $116,000 in contributions during the week, including $50,000 from his mother that pushed his total to $650,000.

Among Republicans, Adams County Judge Mike George raised about $31,000 during the week, but his $594,000 total was by far the biggest.

Advocates of alternatives to electing judges said TV ad bookings totaled at least $2.4 million as of Friday, with four days left until the election. They said the high level of spending by law firms and other special interests that may appear before the judges could create at least the appearance of bias.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what we’ll likely see before the race ends in November,” said Lynn Marks, director of Philadelphia-based Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

The other Democrats in the race are Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff and Superior Court judges Anne Lazarus and Christine Donohue.

Others vying for the GOP nomination are Montour County District Attorney Rebecca Warren, Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, Superior Court Judge Judy Olson, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen.

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