LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — With days to go until the state's primary election, Arkansas' airwaves are dominated by political vitriol and mailboxes are packed with campaign flyers, but most of it has nothing to do with Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or the other presidential hopefuls vying for Republican delegates.
Instead, the barrage is focused on two state Supreme Court races that have become Arkansas' most fiercely fought contests, thanks to the ramped up efforts of outside conservative groups to reshape the nation's state courts by shattering spending records.
The Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington-based group, has spent more than $600,000 on television ads targeting Justice Courtney Goodson as she runs for the chief justice post. A second group, the Republican State Leadership Committee's Judicial Fairness Initiative, has bought about $250,000 worth of airtime for spots criticizing a Little Rock attorney in another high court race.
The nearly $1.3 million spent on TV airtime alone more than doubles the previous Arkansas record for such spending in a judicial election, according to campaign finance groups.
"This is the new normal for supreme court races nationwide," said Laurie Kinney, spokeswoman for Justice at Stake, a Washington-based group that along with the Brennan Center for Justice has been tracking the judicial election spending. "What Arkansas is experiencing right now is really a trend we've been noticing more and more nationwide."
Arkansas is the key battleground now because its nonpartisan judicial elections are held earlier than other states'. Similar campaigns will unfold elsewhere later this year.
Also, unlike some other conservative states, Arkansas doesn't have a limit on punitive damage awards in lawsuits, a top priority for right-leaning legal groups. Parts of an earlier tort reform law were rejected by the courts.
The Judicial Crisis Network was formed in 2004 to promote former President George W. Bush's U.S. Supreme Court picks, and has branched out into state judges' races in recent years. Led by Carrie Severino, a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the group is classified as a tax-exempt "social welfare" organization and isn't required by law to disclose its donors.
In addition to the Arkansas blitz, the group is waging a $1 million TV ad campaign arguing the next president, and not President Barack Obama, should nominate a replacement for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Ads produced by the group portray Goodson, who has served on the court since 2011, as an insider for accepting gifts and contributions from trial attorneys, and a mailer calls her President Barack Obama's "rubber stamp" for the court's 2014 ruling striking down Arkansas' voter ID law.
Goodson wrote the majority opinion when Arkansas' Supreme Court struck down a portion of the state's tort reform law.
Goodson has accused her opponent, Circuit Judge Dan Kemp, of collaborating on the attacks. Kemp has denied any prior knowledge of the group's ads.
"They have a hidden agenda and we don't know the lengths to which they will go to buy this seat," Goodson said.
Severino said the group has no interest pending before the Arkansas Supreme Court.
"We are concerned about the integrity of all courts, and the closely related issue of the appearance of impropriety," Severino wrote in an email.
The Republican State Leadership Committee is also spending heavily on the chief justice race but most of its attacks target Clark Mason, a Little Rock lawyer seeking an open Supreme Court seat. Thirty-second spots accuse Mason, who is opposed by Circuit Judge Shawn Womack, of charging high fees to his clients, dubbing him "Clark 'Ka-Ching' Mason."
The committee, which launched its national judicial initiative two years ago, is supported financially by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tobacco company Reynolds America, Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores and other major corporations. Womack, a former state legislator, co-sponsored the tort limits law that the high court struck down.
In both races, outside group advertising is eclipsing what the candidates themselves are spending. The Judicial Crisis Network's TV ad buys almost double what Goodson has bought. The Republican State Leadership Committee is outspending Mason nearly 4-1.
So far, no outside groups are rushing to assist Goodson or Mason on the airwaves.
Watchdog groups say the Arkansas campaign likely signals just how much outside spending will dominate judicial races nationwide this year, a trend that has been strengthening since the 2010 Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling that opened the door for unlimited political spending by corporations, unions and other interest groups.
"The flood of money we're seeing in states like Arkansas raise real concerns about the integrity of our court system," said Alicia Bannon, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy program.
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