Liberal groups are testing a new crowdsourcing tactic in their battle against President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee — and are testing the limits of campaign finance laws with their attempt to force one GOP senator to vote “No.”
The initiative has secured pledges of $1.2 million, which the groups say they’ll direct to an opponent of Sen. Susan Collins, should she vote to confirm Mr. Trump’s pick, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. If she votes for the nomination, the donors’ credit cards will be charged.
Ms. Collins and her defenders say that sounds an awful lot like bribery, threatening her political future in exchange for her shaping her vote.
Campaign legal experts, though, were less certain, saying that as long as they aren’t offering her the money, it may be perfectly legal.
“It’s a new form of strategy, that is for sure, but I do think it is covered still under legitimate campaign activity,” said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University.
Ms. Collins is one of two pro-choice Republican senators liberals are hoping to sway to vote against Judge Kavanaugh. Combined with all Democrats’ opposition, it would be enough to defeat the nomination.
Ms. Collins has not yet revealed how she plans to vote, but had previously said she wouldn’t back a nominee hostile towards women’s reproductive rights.
As the vote nears later this month, pressure is mounting — and some of it is nasty.
The senator’s staff has received threatening calls and vulgar, profanity filled messages, including letter warning that “every waitress who serves you is going to spit in your food,” and a caller who told a 25-year-old staffer he hoped she would be raped and impregnated.
A box of wire hangers was also sent to her office, symbolizing pro-choice advocates’ claims that Judge Kavanaugh will lead the high court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that established a national constitutional right to abortion.
“Senator Collins will make up her mind based on the merits of the nomination. Threats or other attempts to bully her will not play a factor in her decision making whatsoever,” said Annie Clark, a spokesperson for the senator.
Other Republican senators decried the harassment campaign, demanded Democrats disavow the threats made toward Ms. Collins, and complained about what they saw as illegal campaign activity.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, called it “potential illegal bribery.”
Cleta Mitchell, a prominent campaign lawyer, said the Justice Department should investigate the effort, calling it “definitely a violation of federal law.”
“Federal law prohibits any person from promising or offering any thing of value to a member of Congress in exchange for an official act and what these people are doing is definitely a thing of value. It’s up to over a million dollars saying her vote is with a million plus dollars depending on how she votes,” Ms. Mitchell said.
She said the money campaign detracts from Ms. Collins’ ability to make a judgment on the nomination based on his record, his testimony and other relevant factors.
But Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California Irvine, said he doesn’t see the crowdsourcing effort crossing lines, since it doesn’t promise anything to Ms. Collins herself.
“This behavior does not come close to violating the federal bribery statute,” he wrote in a recent opinion article for Slate.
Former Federal Election Commission member Hans von Spakovsky said the groups are toeing the line, but it’s too early to know whether any laws have been violated.
He said one danger for the campaign is that donors could unknowingly exceed contribution limits once their cards are charged, and there’s a candidate the cash goes to.
“However, we don’t have enough information on how the money is being raised and whether donations are being accepted that exceed contribution limits,” he said.
As of Wednesday, there were more than 37,000 donations towards the initiative.
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