Spending around Pa. Supreme Court race set a new record, surpassing $19.5 million

Outside groups spent heavily in the closing weeks of the campaign to highlight the candidates’ positions on abortion.

By: - December 14, 2023 6:28 pm

Pennsylvania Supreme Court chambers in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo)

Driven by the likelihood that Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court will weigh in on abortion rights in the next decade, spending in this year’s race to elect its next justice surpassed $19.5 million, setting a new record for judicial races in the commonwealth, according to campaign finance reports.

As more than $8.5 million combined flooded into the candidates’ campaign funds, outside advocacy groups spent still more millions on ads discussing the candidates’ positions on reproductive rights.

The winner, Democratic Superior Court Judge Daniel McCaffery, spent about $4 million this year through his own campaign committee. Of that, about $840,000 was in the last two weeks of the campaign, finance reports that were due Dec. 7 show. 

But McCaffery benefited from nearly $7.5 million in spending by outside groups. More than $2.7 million was spent supporting McCaffery in the final two weeks of the campaign, campaign finance reports for the period between Oct. 24 and Nov. 27 show.

His Republican opponent, Montgomery County President Judge Carolyn Carluccio, by comparison, spent $6.4 million this year through her campaign committee. Nearly $4.5 million of that was in coordination with a political action committee funded in part by billionaire securities trader, leading GOP donor, and school choice proponent Jeff Yass. 

Carluccio spent $550,000 in the last two weeks of the campaign, the latest finance reports show. She also benefited from independent outside spending, though not to the extent that McCaffery did. 

Fair Courts America, a committee backed by Richard Uihlien, founder of the shipping supply company Uline, spent $735,000 between mid September and late October for ads attacking McCaffery.

The $19.59 million spending total shatters the previous record of $15.8 million for a Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, set in 2015, when three seats were open. But it’s less than half of the national record, in excess of $40 million, set in this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

The open state Supreme Court seat was a result of Chief Justice Max Baer’s sudden death in October 2022. While a Republican victory would not have flipped the partisan balance of the court, it could have brought Republicans within one seat of a majority. 

Already at the top of the statewide ballot in November, the state Supreme Court race gained energy in the atmosphere of uncertainty that followed last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning its 50-year-old Roe vs. Wade decision conferring a national right to abortion.

The decision returned the power to restrict abortion access to the states, putting state courts, including Pennsylvania’s high court, in a position to determine the validity of such laws.

In the months leading up to the election, Pennsylvania residents were barraged with television and digital advertising painting McCaffery, endorsed by the state chapter of Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women, as a protector of abortion rights. 

The ads cast Carluccio as a candidate who could not be trusted to protect the right to abortion in Pennsylvania, highlighting her endorsements by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania. They also drew attention to a statement deleted from her campaign website after the primary vowing to “protect all life under the law.”

In campaign materials paid for by Yass’ Commonwealth Leaders Fund, Carluccio’s campaign attacked McCaffery for his role in a 2013 scandal in which McCaffery, then a Philadelphia judge received two lewd emails from his brother, then-Justice Seamus McCaffery. Daniel McCaffery directed his brother to send such emails, which were also sent to dozens of other state officials, to his personal account, the campaign flyers noted. 

Planned Parenthood Votes, the organization’s political arm, spent just more than $1 million on advertising opposing Carluccio. Of that, $187,000 came in the last two weeks of the campaign. 

Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness, a committee supporting Democratic candidates backed by attorneys and labor unions, spent about $6.3 million in 2023. About $2.4 million of that was spent in the closing two weeks of the campaign.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania spent nearly $1.8 million to educate voters on where each candidate stands on issues like abortion access and voting rights, spokesperson Ian Pajer-Rogers said. The organization did not endorse either candidate, according to its policy.


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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.