HomeCourtsA right-wing think tank is dumping millions into the Ohio Supreme Court races

A right-wing think tank is dumping millions into the Ohio Supreme Court races

Matt Cohen

The Republican State Leadership Committee has ties to dark money donors and has ramped up spending on judicial races.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, a right-wing political organization known to funnel millions of dollars in dark money to down-ballot GOP candidates in pivotal state races, made an eye-popping announcement on Sept. 29: It reserved $2 million in TV ads in Ohio to support three Republican state Supreme Court candidates.

The RSLC describes itself as the biggest organization of Republican leaders at the state level, whose core mission is to help elect GOP candidates in competitive state elections. Each election cycle, the group pours millions of dollars into state races in an effort to consolidate the Republican Party’s power within state legislatures and courts.

The RSLC in recent years has gradually increased its spending in judicial elections, a significant escalation in its efforts to influence key state supreme court races — especially in Ohio, where the future of abortion access and redistricting hinges on the outcome of these elections.

“We’ve never documented [the RSLC] spending more than around $2 million in any one state,” Douglas Keith, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, told the American Independent Foundation. “But what we’re already seeing in Ohio — a single set of ad reservations for $2 million — doesn’t even speak to the cost of making these ads or any mail that they’re involved in or any other kinds of voter contact.”

Keith said the RSLC is probably gearing up to spend much more than $2 million in Ohio, especially given that it typically spends around $5 million or $6 million in total on judicial elections across a number of states. A spokesperson for the RSLC told Cleveland.com in September that the organization plans to spend at least $5 million on state supreme court races around the country this election cycle.

State judicial races — especially state supreme court elections — have become increasingly contentious and expensive over the past few election cycles. As the U.S. Supreme Court rolls back civil and voting rights by striking down entirely or in part rulings in cases such as Roe v. Wade and Shelby County v. Holder,decisions in cases of civil liberties, reproductive rights, and voting rights are given to the states to make. As a result, right-wing special interest groups such as the RSLC, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Judicial Crisis Network, and others have poured an unprecedented amount of money into state judicial elections in recent years.

The Republican State Leadership Committee is known as a dark money machine; its top donors in the 2020 election cycle were the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative judicial think tank that doesn’t have to disclose its financial contributors; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and a number of energy and pharmaceutical corporations.

For Keith, the RSLC’s recent ad buy in Ohio is a key indicator of how much money outside groups are putting into high-stakes down-ballot judicial elections in states such as Ohio and North Carolina in order to push a conservative agenda onto the courts.

“It suggests that the amount of money that these outside groups are putting into the high-stakes elections like Ohio may be more than we’ve ever seen before,” Keith said. “I wouldn’t say that, in 2022, national records are going to be broken, but there very well may be records broken in individual states. And Ohio, it’s quite possible, will be one of those states.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Updated Oct. 10 at 4:15 PM to correct a typo.