RALEIGH — In a nonpartisan N.C. Supreme Court race that brought controversy over outside money and negative campaign ads, partial returns showed a Democrat and a Republican as the top vote-getters Tuesday in a three-way primary contest.
Robin Hudson, a Democrat and associate justice running for a second term on the states highest court, was leading with 41 percent of the vote, apparently closer to gaining a spot on the Nov. 4 ballot as part of a campaign to keep her seat.
Eric Levinson, a Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge and one of two Republicans in the primary contest, also seemed to be moving toward a spot on the November ballot with nearly 37 percent of the vote.
The race between Hudson, 62, and Levinson, 46, has been of keen interest in political circles inside and outside North Carolina.
Jeanette Doran, 38, a Republican who was appointed Dec. 31 by Gov. Pat McCrory to lead the review board that hears unemployment compensation appeals, entered the contest a day before the close of the filing period.
Doran, the former executive director of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, an organization tied to the family of McCrorys budget director, Art Pope, created a political stir with her candidacy. With Doran in the race, the field of three seeking the Hudson seat had to be narrowed to two in a primary election that was expected to bring a heavy draw from Republicans interested in the U.S. Senate race. Turnout was low with just 14 percent for a primary election that offered local and statewide races.
That meant in an election year where the balance of political power on the N.C. Supreme Court was at issue, Dorans candidacy and the possibility of two Republicans emerging from the primary could have helped them maintain a court majority that might be more favorable to a conservative agenda. That still could happen in the fall elections, but Hudson was considered a target by conservative organizations.
The N.C. Supreme Court race has been described as part of a concerted effort by the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington to win judiciary seats across the country.
The Judicial Fairness Initiative, the GOP program announced last week, calls for spending millions to focus on educating voters to better understand the ideology of candidates up for judicial branch elections, Matt Walter, the committees president, told The New York Times.
In North Carolina, where the Republicans control both chambers of the state house and the governors office, the new focus on the judiciary has been described as an attempt to build a firewall around a conservative agenda.
New redistricting maps that favor the Republicans who led the redrawing face a constitutional challenge that will go before the N.C. Supreme Court. The states highest court also is likely to weigh laws directing public money to private-school vouchers. Elements of a state budget that eliminated 3,850 teacher assistants, ended extra pay for teachers with masters degrees and phased out teacher tenure also could come to them in a legal challenge.
Hudson, an associate justice for the past eight years who previously was a member of the N.C. Appeals Court, holds one of four N.C. Supreme Court seats up for election in November.
Because the other three races had only two candidates in each contest, Hudson was the only sitting justice facing a primary.
Nearly $1 million was funneled into the primary races as part of the conservative-based effort to take over the judiciary, a branch of government that is supposed to be above the political fray.
Justice At Stake, an organization linked to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, has been tracking the recent spending on judicial elections and raising concerns about the potential for conflicts of interest on the bench.
In 2012, according to the center, nearly $30 million was spent nationwide on TV ads for state court races. Of that total, $2 million was spent in North Carolina in the fight for a N.C. Supreme Court race between Paul Newby, the Republican who won, and Sam Ervin, the N.C. Appeals Court judge with long Democratic connections that go back to his grandfather, the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin.
Justice For All NC, the super Political Action Committee behind an ad attacking Hudson, has become a big player in North Carolina judicial races. The organization, which lists a UPS mailbox in a Raleigh shopping center as its headquarters for the purposes of tax records, has taken in hundreds of thousands of dollars from Republicans of national note.
The North Carolina Chamber IE PAC, which on a state disclosure form has reported $225,000 paid to advertising agency Impact Strategies, has run ads supporting Levinson and Doran.
The group has reported contributions from a number of in-state industry sources as well as $50,000 in out-of-state funding from Koch Industries.
The attack ad, run many times in the days leading up to the primary, called Hudson a judge who sided with predators and was soft on child molesters because of a 4-3 decision in which she argued that a law requiring certain sex offenders to wear electronic-monitoring devices should not apply to offenders convicted before the new statute was adopted.
The N.C. Bar Association denounced the ad. A group of six former N.C. Supreme Court justices called the ad disgusting and false.
But advocates of the Republican candidates and the organization behind the ad described it as protected political speech that did not distort Hudsons decision in the case.
Hudson, who spent nearly $90,000 on rebuttal ads, contended otherwise.
Neither Levinson nor Doran commented on the ad.
Pope, the state budget director, has bemoaned the attachment of his name to the race, saying that he has not publicly endorsed nor provided financial support for any of the campaigns.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1