The opposition was well-funded and coordinated — but not enough to topple three sitting Tennessee Supreme Court justices.
Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Connie Clark and Sharon Lee were able to declare victory Thursday night, despite opposition from one of the state's most powerful political figures, Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in money from national, conservative groups. It was a comfortable margin, even if it was slimmer than past years.
"Tennesseans have spoken convincingly in favor of maintaining the strong, fair and impartial Judiciary that our state has maintained for years," said Carol Andrews, spokeswoman for Keep Tennessee Courts Fair, a group formed by the justices. "They have insisted that Tennessee's Supreme Court and Tennessee's entire judiciary be a 'politics-free' zone. For this, we are grateful and never prouder of our great Volunteer State."
Not long after the race was called, Ramsey, the chief architect of their opposition, congratulated them on a good election. His political action committee had sunk more than $400,000 into the effort to replace the justices. He played the defeat off as a positive situation for voters, "who gained a fuller appreciation of the role of the judiciary in the state of Tennessee.
"No matter how you look at it, that is the true victory," Ramsey said in a statement. "Not just for this effort, but for the state of Tennessee."
Ramsey did not make himself available for interviews Thursday night.
The Tennessee Forum, which was funded largely by the $400,000-plus donation, spearheaded the campaign to oust the three, calling them "liberal" and "weak on crime" and suggesting they gave aid and comfort to Obamacare. After Thursday's election results, the group's president, Susan Kaestner, continued that line of attack.
"The people of this state have spoken and the 144-year reign of this liberal Supreme Court continues," Kaestner wrote in a statement. "But the fight goes on. More voters, with more information than ever, entered the voting booth and chose 'replace'. That's a win for the electoral process in Tennessee."
In all, more than $1.4 million was spent in the retention election. Surprisingly, the justices themselves outspent their opposition — which included national conservative groups like the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity — $579,870 to $474,150 in television ads. It's unclear how much was spent on radio and mail campaigns.
For all the spending, the most opponents can say is that they made the election closer than past retention elections.
That may be enough to inspire big spending in future judicial elections, though, said Tracey George, professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University. She said the amount of money spent in Tennessee's retention election is a fraction of what has been seen in other states, like North Carolina.
She said the spending in Tennessee may have led to as much as a 10-point boost in the vote to replace the justices.
"It's a very inexpensive way to influence policy in the state," she said.