November 1, 2012 at 1:00 am

Poll: No clear leader in High Court races despite spending

Candidates pouring millions into three contests

Lansing — The battle for control of the Supreme Court could become the most expensive state supreme court race in the country, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which estimates spending will top $10 million.

And despite those efforts, no clear leader in either of the three contests surfaced in a new Detroit News / WDIV Local 4 poll.

600-sample live operator survey conducted Saturday through Monday showed the two Democrat Party-backed candidates leading the two Republican Party nominees by 3 percentage points in the race for the two eight-year positions on the panel.

All four major party candidates are within the survey's 4 point margin of error.

Among the respondents, 20 percent said they will support Wayne County Circuit Judge Connie Marie Kelley and 19.8 percent would vote for Bridget Mary McCormack, dean of clinical programs with the University of Michigan Law School.

Incumbent conservative Justice Stephen Markman and Republican-backed Oakland County Circuit Judge Colleen O'Brien were supported by 17 percent of those polled by Glengariff Group Inc. of Chicago.

Republicans hope to hang on to their majority on the seven-member court, while Democrats wish to regain the control they lost in 2010.

Richard Czuba, president of Glengariff, said what happens on Election Day is anybody's guess.

He said 55 percent of those polled last weekend were not able to recognize the name of a single Supreme Court candidate.

Historically, candidates often favored in the race, which receives the least amount of attention among voters, are incumbents and women with Irish names.

"Despite the numbers being low and muddled right now, the incumbent designation might help (Markman) here," Czuba said.

"But because there are three strong Irish names, they're going to be fighting it out for at least the No. 2 spot and maybe the No. 1 spot."

Incumbent Republican-backed Justice Stephen Zahra holds a narrow 21.8 percent to 19.5 percent lead over Democrat-backed 49th District Judge Shelia Johnson in the contest for Zahra's partial term. Zahra will have the incumbent advantage, and has no Irish Catholic name to contend with, Czuba noted. Incumbents are listed on the ballot as Justice of the Supreme Court under their names.

The candidates' pre-general election campaign finance reports filed Friday with the Secretary of State show the major-party nominees have raised more than $2.7 million. The political parties and political action committees reported independent expenditures related to the campaign of about $679,000, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Rich Robinson, executive director of the Campaign Finance Network, said there are no reporting requirements for much of the spending in the race, and though TV advertising buys can be tracked there is no way to measure spending on direct mail advertising. The group estimates spending will total $10 million by Nov. 6.

"Three quarters of the campaign is off the books," Robinson said Wednesday.

According to Czuba, the spending might be wasted on voters.

"Yes, the parties run very partisan campaigns, but when they enter the booth most voters don't know who (the candidates) are," Czuba said.

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