Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty and Anne Covey, from Bucks County, were among six candidates who won the right Tuesday to vie for three open seats on the state Supreme Court.
"I'd like to believe that my message of being the advocate for the marginalized, the at risk, the working poor . . ." Dougherty said Tuesday night, "resonated throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
Along with Dougherty, the Democratic nominees for the high court are Allegheny County's David Wecht and Christine Donohue, both Superior Court judges. Commonwealth Court Judge Covey is joined by Superior Court Judge Judith Olson and Adams County Judge Mike George as the Republican nominees.
George went from feeling like a longshot among the dozen candidates - six per party - to a GOP nominee after a $500,000 donation from a friend. Covey won despite not receiving a recommendation from the state bar association.
Among the Republicans who did not make the cut was Correale Stevens, a justice appointed in 2013 by Gov. Tom Corbett.
The stakes for the race are high: Whoever wins the general election is likely to take the bench as the high court decides cases related to the death penalty and fracking, among other issues.
The court now has a Republican majority, and party makeup could prove critical if justices play a role, as they have before, deciding redistricting in the next decade.
Despite a lack of headlines or voter interest, the 12 candidates have already drawn about $5.5 million in campaign contributions - and court watchers anticipate the race will draw much more money before the November election. Candidates already spent more than $2.4 million on advertising, according to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a statewide advocacy group.
The nominees will compete for 10-year terms to fill three open seats, a first since Pennsylvania was a British colony. Two openings resulted from justices unseated by scandals, and candidates have touted a commitment to integrity.
The role of money in the race has drawn much attention. Cash going to candidates creates the perception that donors might get an advantage if they represent litigants before the Supreme Court, said Lynn Marks, executive director for Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. "It's important to shine the light as much as possible on where contributions come from," she said.
In the last two weeks, more than $1 million poured into the race. The biggest beneficiary was Dougherty, a Common Pleas Court judge whose campaign collected about $1.5 million - about a third from chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where his brother John is a powerful member.
Court watchers also expressed concern about the influence of hard to track "dark money" anticipated from out-of-state sources that would go to political action committees, rather than the candidates.