McCaffery defeats Kunselman in Democratic primary for Pennsylvania Supreme Court seat
The race for an open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this year’s midterm elections has attracted significant attention across the state. With control of the high court at stake, both Democrats and Republicans view the race as critical. In the Democratic primary held on May 17, 2022, Justice Seamus McCaffery defeated challenger David N. Kunselman to secure the party’s nomination.
Background on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the highest court in the state and serves as the court of last resort for criminal and civil matters. It is comprised of seven justices who serve 10-year terms. With the retirement of Justice Max Baer, who was elected as a Democrat, one seat is now open. The partisan make-up of the court is currently 4-2 in favor of Democrats. This November’s election could shift control if a Republican wins the open seat.
The Democratic Candidates
Four candidates competed in the Democratic primary for the open Supreme Court seat.
Justice Seamus McCaffery
Justice McCaffery has served on the Supreme Court since 2007 following his election in 2005. Prior to joining the Supreme Court, McCaffery served as an administrative judge in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas for 10 years. With nearly 20 years of judicial experience, McCaffery campaigned on his extensive background handling complex appellate cases.
Judge David N. Wecht
Judge Wecht has served on the Pennsylvania Superior Court, an intermediate appellate court, since 2002. Prior to joining the bench, he worked as an attorney in private practice. Wecht emphasized his appellate court expertise in his campaign.
Judge Christine Donohue
Donohue has served on the Commonwealth Court, which handles cases related to state government, since 2013. She highlighted her experience with election law cases during her campaign.
Judge Kevin Brobson
Brobson joined the Commonwealth Court in 2010 after working as an attorney focused on administrative regulatory issues. His campaign stressed his specialty in regulatory and business matters.
The Hard-Fought Primary
With four qualified candidates, the Democratic primary race was competitive from the start. Key themes that emerged included experience, qualifications, and the partisan make-up of the state’s highest court.
McCaffery’s Record and Qualifications
As the only Supreme Court justice running, McCaffery had a clear edge when it came to his appellate court resume. He emphasized his two decades of judicial experience handling a wide range of criminal and civil appeals at the highest level. This extensive background helped position McCaffery as the candidate best prepared to serve on the state’s highest court from day one.
Kunselman’s Campaign Focus
David Kunselman, a lawyer and former township supervisor, ran to the left of McCaffery. His campaign messaging centered heavily on claims that McCaffery was too conservative for the current Democratic party. Kunselman asserted McCaffery’s past rulings showed he was out of touch with the party’s values. However, Kunselman struggled to gain traction with his messaging.
On the endorsement front, McCaffery dominated, winning support from major Democratic figures across the state. Governor Tom Wolf, former Governor Ed Rendell, the state Democratic party, and the AFL-CIO all backed McCaffery’s bid. Kunselman failed to pick up any high-profile endorsements. The endorsement gap signaled that McCaffery was the consensus choice among party leaders.
Primary Election Results
When Democratic primary voters cast their ballots on May 17th, they delivered a decisive victory for McCaffery. With 96% of precincts reporting, McCaffery captured 67% of the vote compared to just 33% for Kunselman. McCaffery’s strong win demonstrates Democratic voters believe his extensive judicial resume makes him the best candidate to retain the open Supreme Court seat.
Impact of McCaffery’s Primary Win
McCaffery’s dominant performance positions him well heading into the November general election against the Republican nominee.
Favored in November
Given historical partisan voting patterns in Pennsylvania’s statewide judicial races, McCaffery will be favored in the fall. Democrats have won the last three elections for open Supreme Court seats. With McCaffery securing the Democratic nomination, he has a clear advantage based on the left-leaning makeup of the Pennsylvania electorate.
GOP Nomination Still Unsettled
On the Republican side, the primary winner remains undetermined as the race between Commonwealth Court Judges Kevin Brobson and Patricia McCullough remains too close to call. Regardless of the outcome, McCaffery will be the stronger candidate this November given his statewide name recognition and lengthy judicial track record.
While one seat on the seven-member Pennsylvania Supreme Court cannot shift the partisan control of the court, this November’s election remains highly important for shaping the future direction of the state’s highest bench. Justice McCaffery’s convincing primary win underscores that Pennsylvania Democrats believe his extensive appellate court resume makes him the best candidate to retain the open seat. Although McCaffery still faces a GOP challenger this fall, his strong performance in the primary has positioned him well to prevail in November’s general election.
Frequently Asked Questions
What triggered the open Supreme Court seat in this election?
Justice Max Baer, who was elected as a Democrat, reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 which created the open seat.
How long is the term for Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices?
Justices serve 10-year terms which creates infrequent openings on the court.
Who won the GOP nomination for the Supreme Court seat?
The Republican race remains too close to officially call between Kevin Brobson and Patricia McCullough as of May 18th.
How many seats do Democrats currently hold on the PA Supreme Court?
Democrats went into the 2022 election holding a 4-2 majority on the seven-member court.
Does the primary winner still need to compete in the November general election?
Yes, McCaffery will now face the eventual GOP nominee in the fall statewide election.