Money & Politics

This Week in Political Money: Dark Money Floods Judicial Races

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This Week in Political Money

Pennsylvania Supreme Court chambers. (Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts)

We’ll be posting this roundup each week leading up to Election Day. Share your thoughts about these must-read stories and always feel free to suggest your own in the comments section.

Thirty-nine states elect their judges, and of those, 27 have a seat open this year. These judicial candidates, just like candidates for any other office, must campaign, and often benefit from advertising purchased by supporters. In the post-Citizens United world, that advertising can paid for by a single, anonymous person — perhaps someone who is likely to have business before the court. An analysis by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice found that so far this year, in judicial primaries and in states that held their judicial elections early, 70 percent of television advertising supporting or opposing candidates was purchased by groups that don’t disclose donors.

But, in some states, it’s not just individuals who can donate to help elect a judge to office. A recent report by Billy Corriher at the Center for American Progress finds that, in the six states that he examined, the justices who most often voted in ways that protected corporate interests also benefited the most from corporate campaign contributions.


Because Scott Walker asked

— Written in the subject line of a $10,000 check from financier G. Frederick Kasten Jr. to the Wisconsin Club for Growth. In a must-read piece for The Guardian, reporter Ed Pilkington uses leaked documents to reconstruct how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker followed his advisors’ advice — “Take Koch’s money. Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.” — to save his job when faced with a recall election.

Figures for presidential and congressional races from the Center for Responsive Politics; figures for state races from the National Institute of Money in State Politics. All figures as of Sept. 15.

Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas-based oil and gas company has been in the news this month as its Dakota Access Pipeline, currently under construction, became the subject of protests from Native American tribes and environmentalists. President Barack Obama eventually halted construction on the pipeline, while the Army Corps of Engineers, which gave ETP the green light on the project, reconsiders its decision.

The company, which also owns Sunoco and the Stripes chain of convenience stores, gives generously to candidates through two groups: a political advocacy group incorporated under section 527 of the tax code and a super PAC, both of which can give unlimited donations. The 527 group focuses on state and local politicians, while the super PAC funds national politicians. The groups together gave over a million dollars in 2014, a midterm election, most of it supporting Republican candidates.



That’s the amount — also exposed in Ed Pilkington’s Guardian report — that one billionaire owner of a lead company donated to the Wisconsin Club for Growth’s efforts to defend Scott Walker and other Republicans fighting recall elections. Around the same time, the Wisconsin legislature passed, and Walker signed into law, legislation protecting lead manufacturers from lead paint-related law suits.

Dr. Oz

A creation of television himself, it makes sense that Donald Trump chose to prove his physical fitness for office by appearing in a comfortable venue: Controversial TV doctor Mehmet Oz’s daytime talk show. But Dr. Oz’s political activities also make him a safe choice for the presidential candidate: He has donated some $65,000 over the years to candidates, overwhelmingly to Republicans, including his friend and fellow media figure Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, who ran for Congress in 2012.

Happy birthday, Mr. President! The Clinton Foundation has created plenty of problems for Hillary Clinton during this election cycle, and the Clintons have promised to step away from it should she take the oath of office. But might as well go out with a bang: Bill Clinton is holding a fundraiser Friday for the organization in the form of a swanky belated birthday bash. Politico reports that guests at the party, in a glitzy restaurant on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center, will be treated to performances by Wynton Marsalis, Jon Bon Jovi and Barbra Streisand.

John Light


John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.