- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia Supreme Court candidates are running without political party labels for the first time, but the change hasn’t slowed a party committee’s millions of dollars in outside spending and partisan jabs by other groups.

Nonpartisan judge elections were intended to lift the appearance of partisan bias on the bench, according to the GOP lawmakers who favored the change in 2015. The new law puts judicial races on the May 10 ballot for the first time, without runoffs or a general election.

Out of almost $3 million in outside group advertising in the five-candidate contest, the Republican State Leadership Committee has spent $2 million. The group has attacked Darrell McGraw and Bill Wooton, former Democratic officials, and has supported Beth Walker, a 2008 Republican Supreme Court candidate. In part, the group has tied its targets to President Barack Obama, a tactic West Virginia Republicans employed to make historic gains in the 2014 election. Other ads criticize McGraw’s spending as attorney general.

“Former Attorney General Darrell McGraw let Obama roll all over West Virginia,” says one of the group’s ads. McGraw also once served on the Supreme Court. “And Democrat Bill Wooton, he sat on his hands too, refusing to stand up to Obama.”

A group named Just Courts for WV, which is funded by trial lawyers, has countered by spending $496,400 to tie Walker to convicted ex-coal executive Don Blankenship, who famously spent millions to puppeteer an election for this same seat 12 years ago. Several of Blankenship’s former operatives now back Walker.

Blankenship was recently handed a one-year prison sentence for conspiring to violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch mine, where an explosion killed 29 men in 2010.

In 2004, the ex-Massey Energy CEO spent $3.5 million on outside advertising to help put Justice Brent Benjamin on the bench. Benjamin then voted in Blankenship’s favor in a 3-2 decision that saved Massey a $50 million payout.

Benjamin, who won as a Republican, is up for re-election in this year’s contest. He’s now opposed by many of the same interests that helped elect him and is using public campaign financing.

If there was any mystery about frontrunner’s political parties, outside groups have helped lift that veil.

A West Virginia Chamber of Commerce ad mentions federal issues that have little to do with the state Supreme Court. “Obama’s hand-picked judges, liberal, lawless” have “waged war on our jobs and it could get even worse,” it says, before showing Hillary Clinton’s television clip from March where she said she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She was responding to a question about how her policies would benefit poor white people in southern states, and later said she made a misstatement.

The ad says Walker would be a “tough, fair, conservative judge,” adding that Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito endorsed her.

The Republican State Leadership Committee raised $4.7 million in the first quarter this year, with its biggest donations including $350,000 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform; and $100,000 each from Wal-Mart, Koch Industries, and Marathon Petroleum. The national group doesn’t disclose which donors are interested in which elections.

Outside groups are topping the five candidates themselves, who have spent $1.6 million combined through late April. Walker is using $500,000 from her husband. Wooton and Benjamin have chosen to access up to $525,000 each in public campaign money. The fifth candidate is Clay County attorney Wayne King.

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