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Outside groups dropping millions on West Virginia Supreme Court race

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Third party spending for the West Virginia Supreme Court race is up above $3.5 million ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, the first nonpartisan judicial election in the Mountain State.

Most of those ads have run during the past couple of weeks.

Two groups account for the majority of the advertising expenditures with a 12 year seat on the ballot: the Republican State Leadership Committee at $2.6 million and the Just Courts For West Virginia PAC at more $496,000 in expenses.

Ads from the RSLC have endorsed Beth Walker, a Morgantown attorney who is making her second run for the Supreme Court, and slammed Darrell McGraw, a former Supreme Court justice and longtime state Attorney General, along with Bill Wooton, a Beckley attorney and former longtime lawmakers.

The RSLC claims to be the largest caucus of Republican state leaders in the country and the “only national organization whose mission is to elect down-ballot, state-level Republican officeholders.”

For the first time, the five West Virginia Supreme Court candidates, along with all of West Virginia’s circuit judges, family court judges and magistrates, are running this year without Republican, Democrat or other party affiliations — at least on the ballots.

“Everyone knows Darrell McGraw is a Democrat. Everyone knows Beth Walker and Brent Benjamin ran as Republicans and Bill Wooton was a Democrat. All you have to do is go back and google it,” said Chris Dickerson, editor of the West Virginia Record.

The Just Courts for West Virginia PAC ads, funded by trial lawyers, have been critical of Walker.

Several other organizations have spent money on ads supporting Walker, including nearly $317,000 from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce PAC, more than $104,300 from the West Virginians for Fair Courts PAC and $54,600 from the Moving West Virginia Forward PAC, according to filings with the Secretary of State.

Those organizations, Dickerson noted, provide clues to the political leanings of the Supreme Court candidates.

“It’s going to be 20 years before you don’t know someone’s party affiliation and it’s still probably going to be easy enough to go look up,” Dickerson said on Monday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

Calls for judicial reforms intensified after the 2004 Supreme Court race when former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent $3.5 million through his PAC, And For the Sake of the Kids, to unseat Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw. Justice Brent Benjamin was elected that year and is seeking re-election this year.

Combined, the five 2016 Supreme Court candidates themselves had spent $1.6 million by the end of April. Both Benjamin and Wooton each qualified for $500,000 in public campaign financing for the race and have called for an end to the third party spending.

The 5th Supreme Court candidate is Wayne King, a Clay County attorney.

The Supreme Court justice along with all of the judges elected Tuesday in West Virginia’s primary and nonpartisan judicial elections will officially begin their terms in Jan. 2017.