Cole County, Missouri, seems an unlikely place for a national Republican group to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s a small county of 75,000, and its leadership is solidly red, with few exceptions. One of those exceptions is Pat Joyce, a Democrat who’s held her seat on the country circuit court for two decades. Until a few weeks ago, with $17,000 on hand and her opponent nearly $13,000 in debt, her chances of serving another term seemed good.
That financial advantage vanished abruptly in mid-October when the Republican State Leadership Committee stepped in with $200,000 to save Republican Brian Stumpe. Half of that money went directly to his campaign. The rest went to the RSLC’s local political action committee, which ran a tie-dye hued ad that accused Joyce of being a “groovy” ally of “radical environmentalists.”
Joyce holds a powerful seat, as far as local courts go. Cole County includes the Missouri state capitol, and so the court has jurisdiction over lawsuits against the state, such as legal challenges to ballot measures. But the RSLC’s involvement in the race isn’t necessarily about Joyce—it’s part of a broader campaign to make courts across the country more conservative.
Since 2010, the RSLC has run an aggressive—and successful—strategy to turn states red and keep them that way. This year, the group expanded from legislative and gubernatorial races, putting $5 million into a “Judicial Fairness Initiative” with the aim to elect judges who are “supportive of restraining government.” So far, the RSLC has funded judicial campaigns in Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and North Carolina. The group is still monitoring races in Ohio, Texas and Michigan.
“It’s a conscious campaign to shift the ideological direction of the courts,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks spending in judicial elections. Thirty-nine states elect at least some of their high-court justices. Many began doing so out of concern that executive appointments lacked transparency, but with campaign finance rules increasingly lax, it’s no longer clear that elections are a better mechanism. “We’re seeing money and special-interest influence playing a larger role in these races,” Bannon said. “It’s raising real concerns about whether judicial elections are fulfilling that role of ensuring meaningful accountability and independence for our courts.”