Deep-pocketed donors pour money into Pa. Supreme Court race

Charter school backer Yass, Philadelphia trial lawyers among top spenders this cycle

By: - October 26, 2021 4:05 pm

Stock photo by Juanmonino/Getty Images

*This story was updated at 7:45 p.m. 10/26/21 with comment from the McLaughlin campaign.

With a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court at stake, Philadelphia trial lawyers and a pro-charter school political action committee linked to a suburban Philadelphia hedge fund manager have once again reached deep into their pockets to spend big on politics.

Buoyed by outside groups, Republican Kevin Brobson, a Commonwealth Court judge, has a slight spending edge — $2 million in his favor, versus $1.8 million for Democratic Superior Court judge Maria McLaughlin — since the May primary, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Department of State last week.

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These totals likely will be pushed even higher in the last week before the election, as groups pump extra money into the race.

But both share one fundraising thread in common — a source of disproportionate financial support.

For Brobson, it’s the Commonwealth Leaders Fund, a conservative political action committee that receives the majority of its donations from billionaire Jeff Yass, of Montgomery County.

Yass is among Pennsylvania’s richest men, and has been funding conservatives and pro-charter school politicians nationally and in Pennsylvania for years.

For McLaughlin, it’s the Committee for a Better Tomorrow, the political action committee for the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association. About a third of her campaign’s total contributions — $850,000 — come from the PAC.

But for Brobson, the split is even more pronounced. About two-thirds of his campaign’s total contributions came from the Commonwealth Leaders Fund.

The group, created in 2017, has spent $12.6 million to support Republicans in state races since then. Run by conservative activist Matt Brouillette, the group receives most of its funding from Yass after the money passes through a string of other connected political groups.

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Brobson has received funding from other sources. The $2.7 million Brobson’s campaign has received since the start of the year includes $50,000 from GOP heavyweight Bob Asher’s PAC, $25,000 from Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s leadership PAC, and $25,000 from 2018 GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner.

But Commonwealth Leaders Fund has donated at least $1.9 million to Brobson in both direct and indirect contributions since the start of the year — $1.6 million of which has been given since Brobson’s triumph in a three-way GOP primary in May.

In an emailed statement, the Brobson campaign said that “no contribution, no matter how large or small, has or will affect his decisions.”

“Our campaign has greatly appreciate the tremendous support it has received, and see that support as a sign of Pennsylvania’s desire to bring new experience and new perspective to our highest court,” the campaign added.

McLaughlin, who did not face a primary opponent, also raised $2.7 million since she launched her campaign in 2020. 

McLaughlin’s also received consistent big money backing from numerous unions, particularly the state’s building trades. 

From electricians and painters to operating engineers and plumbers, these politically influential unions have given McLaughlin’s campaign at least $519,000 since her campaign kicked off last year, according to campaign finance records.

McLaughlin’s support from these groups also passed through some other channels. She received another $130,000 from Fairness PA, a PAC  funded by Philadelphia attorneys and labor unions. Fairness PA was among Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s biggest funders in his 2018 reelection campaign.

In an email,  Celeste Dee, McLaughlin’s campaign manager, said of the donations that “Judge McLaughlin can always be trusted to be fair and impartial.”

Dee added that McLaughlin “has taken an oath and abided by it throughout her 29 year legal career in public service, which speaks volumes to her high level of integrity and legal acumen.”

The Committee for a Better Tomorrow and Commonwealth Leaders Fund did not respond to a request for comment.

Four total spots are open on the state’s appellate bench, including one valuable spot on the state Supreme Court.

The high court is currently split 5-2, with justices elected as Democrats making up a majority. The open seat is to replace retiring Justice Thomas Saylor, elected as a Republican, meaning a GOP win will not shift the ideological balance on the court.

The court has had such a split since 2015,when after the most expensive Supreme Court race in U.S. history — totaling $16.5 million in political spending —  Democrats flipped three open seats.

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Since then, the court’s liberal majority has weighed in on cases ranging from gerrymandering and election law to gig workers’ legal status and, potentially, education funding.

The group’s spending wasn’t limited to the Supreme Court. The Commonwealth Leaders Fund has spent at least another $468,000 to help elect two Republicans to the Commonwealth Court and one to the Superior Court. That brings their total spending on judicial races this year to at least $2.36 million, according to campaign finance records.

The Committee for a Better Tomorrow, meanwhile, spent another $275,000. It’s given to both Republicans and Democrats for the lower courts, backing both the Republican and Democratic candidates for one Superior Court seat, as well as Democratic Commonwealth Court candidate Lori Dumas. In total, the committee has spent at least $1.13 million on the judicial races this year.

Pennsylvania law allows for donors to give unlimited sums to political candidates.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.