Fresh from battle, interest groups on both sides of a bitter struggle for control of the state Supreme Court are arming themselves for another...

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Fresh from battle, interest groups on both sides of a bitter struggle for control of the state Supreme Court are arming themselves for another expensive showdown.

Property-rights attorney John Groen on Wednesday conceded defeat to Chief Justice Gerry Alexander in what was the costliest court race in state history. Groen congratulated Alexander in a written statement, a gesture that belied the bitter tone set during the campaign by the groups that were backing both candidates.

All of the attention and money now turns to the likely runoff in November between Justice Susan Owens and Republican state Sen. Steve Johnson of Kent. Owens leads Johnson in a five-way race but probably will not get the 50 percent she would need to advance unopposed to the general election.

Though some observers say campaign attacks in the Groen-Alexander race may have backfired, people on both sides of the Owens-Johnson contest are expecting a similar sort of slugfest.

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In another court race that drew far less attention, Justice Tom Chambers was elected to a second term Tuesday, winning by a wide margin over Jeanette Burrage, a former King County Superior Court judge.

Court races, which in the past were low-budget, low-impact affairs, have grown more contentious in recent years.

In the final weeks of the Groen-Alexander race, voters were hit with an unprecedented onslaught of attack ads and mailers. Most of it came from interest groups that have pumped more than $2.2 million into this year’s court races.

In terms of spending on television ads, the Groen-Alexander race was second-costliest in the nation so far this year, according to two groups that have been tracking state-court races.

Groen’s supporters — especially the powerful Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) — painted 70-year-old Alexander as too old for the job, raised questions about his character and warned voters that he was out to steal their private-property rights.

In response, a new political-action committee funded by labor unions, trial lawyers and other liberal groups portrayed Groen as a toady of “far-right” extremists who are bent on taking over the court. One mailer included a cartoon depicting Groen as a shifty brute.

Sue Evans, spokeswoman for the anti-Groen group, said she wasn’t surprised at the attacks against Alexander.

“The national trends say that kind of stuff works,” Evans said.

But she said the tone and late timing of some of the attacks may have backfired on Groen and his supporters. She said she thinks voters were especially irked at a BIAW-funded ad that criticized Alexander for expressing support for fellow Justice Bobbe Bridge after she was arrested in 2003 for drunken driving.

Alex Hays, a political consultant, called the building-industry attacks against Alexander an “utter failure.”

Hays was campaign manager for Jim Johnson, another conservative property-rights advocate, who was elected to the court on his second try in 2004. He said Johnson — who also had big backing from the building industry — focused mostly on touting his own record, rather than bashing his opponents’.

“I believe if they had spent their money saying nice things about John Groen, he would have been in a better position,” Hays said.

Hays said negative campaigns are not just bad for the candidates, they are bad for the judicial system.

“Because no matter who won that election, someone was going to arrive tainted by the smear campaign,” Hays said.

But BIAW Executive Vice President Tom McCabe defends his group’s strategy and describes the attacks against Alexander as fair and truthful.

And he said he thinks Groen did well, especially given that Alexander was widely supported by the state’s political establishment — including most newspapers — and has been a judge for more than three decades.

“That guy’s been on the ballot forever,” McCabe said.

Groen was bucking history. During the past 60 years, only two incumbent justices who had been elected to their seats, rather than appointed, have been defeated by challengers.

McCabe said the BIAW plans to keep playing rough in court races. The building industry has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Steve Johnson in his race against Owens.

And McCabe said his group will be ready to go to war again for Groen if he decides to run in 2008 — a prospect Groen would not rule out.

“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” McCabe said.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com