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Why Susan Collins claims she’s being bribed over her Kavanaugh vote

A Crowdpac crowdfunding campaign to encourage Collins to vote against Kavanaugh has the senator and others sounding the alarm.

Sen. Susan Collins and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in her office on Capitol Hill on August 21, 2018.
Sen. Susan Collins and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in her office on Capitol Hill on August 21, 2018.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Is Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins being bribed to vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh? That’s what she and others are saying.

The conservative-leaning news site Newsmax reported on Monday that a prominent Republican elections lawyer is calling for an investigation into what it described as a more than $1 million “threat” hanging over Collins’s head, depending on her vote on Kavanaugh. In a statement to Newsmax, Collins said she believed there was an attempt to “bribe” her vote and said she wouldn’t be the target of “quid pro quo fundraising.”

But no one is actually trying to give Collins money to vote against Kavanaugh.

Instead, what Newsmax and Collins are referring to is a crowdfunding campaign run on the progressive political crowdfunding platform Crowdpac. Launched by ALS patient and activist Ady Barkan, the grassroots community action organization Maine People’s Alliance, and the activist and watchdog group Mainers for Accountable Leadership, the campaign is meant to encourage Collins to vote against Kavanaugh.

It’s raised $1.1 million so far, but that money will never go to Collins. The proposition: If Collins votes against Kavanaugh, donors who have pledged to the campaign won’t be charged. If she votes for him, the funds raised will go to her Democratic opponent when she is up for reelection in 2020.

Collins and Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski are considered to be the two key votes on Kavanaugh who will determine whether he is confirmed as a justice of the US Supreme Court. Both women are in favor of abortion rights, and progressives have been pushing them fiercely to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination because of concerns over his stance on Roe v. Wade and the possibility that he might vote to overturn or chip away at the landmark case.

Kavanaugh and Collins met in August, and she said he told her that the matter was “settled law,” even though, as Vox’s Anna North pointed out, during his confirmation hearing last week, Kavanaugh largely danced around giving a straight answer on the issue.

There’s some back-and-forth over the legality of the crowdfunding campaign

At issue here is whether Collins is being, essentially, paid for her vote. As mentioned, the crowdfunding campaign isn’t promising a donation to her campaign, but if she votes no, it would give money to her eventual opponent.

T.J. Adams-Falconer, a spokesperson for Crowdpac, told Newsmax that the platform had been “thoroughly vetted” by the Federal Election Commission and had received “unanimous approval” from it. He said Barkan, the progressive activist who created the campaign, and his Be a Hero PAC have selected a nominee fund for the pledges if they become contributions that will go toward Collins’s eventual opponent, which, he said, is legal.

In an emailed statement to Vox, Adams-Falconer said the response to the campaign has been “incredible” and an example of tens of thousands of people expressing their political speech and “counteracting the dark money that has poured in from big, corporate groups” for years. “The notion that this grassroots activism amounts to bribery is ridiculous and insulting to the more than 40,000 Mainers and other Americans who are making their voice heard through this campaign — no matter which way she votes, Senator Collins will not receive anything of value from this campaign,” he said.

Despite Crowdpac’s defense, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board jumped onto the bribery bandwagon on Tuesday, saying the campaign is clear “quid pro quo” and questioning its legality. “We’re all for citizens exercising their free-speech rights, including campaign donations, for or against political candidates,” the board wrote. “But federal law defines the crime of bribery as ‘corruptly’ offering ‘anything of value to a public official, including a Member of Congress, with the intent to ‘influence any official act.’”

Collins told the Journal that three attorneys had told her it’s a “clear violation” of federal law. In the same interview, she also complained about “out-of-state voicemails” being left on answering machine in her offices. Activists have also mailed her wire hangers, referencing a dangerous abortion method women sometimes resort to when the medical procedure is illegal.

Some progressives have pointed out that while many on the right are complaining about the grassroots crowdfunding campaign around Collins as bribery, they seem to have no such qualms about campaign donations from major corporations or billionaires such as the Koch brothers, which are completely legal under campaign finance laws.

Political crowdfunding has become a big thing in 2018

Collins told Newsmax that the crowdfunding campaign out of Maine would not influence her vote at all and took a swipe at the groups organizing it. “I think it demonstrates the new lows to which the judge’s opponents have stooped,” she said. In the same statement, she described the campaign as a “quid pro quo” that essentially amounts to a “bribe.”

It’s a signal that Collins is feeling the pressure from activists pushing her to vote no on Kavanaugh. But whether it’s actually a bribe isn’t really clear.

As mentioned, the campaign isn’t offering to pay her if she votes no — if she does, everybody just gets their money back. If she votes yes, the money will eventually go to her Democratic challenger, but that’s conceivably not all that different from any other grassroots political campaign.

Beyond Collins, crowdfunding has been on the rise in politics.

There are dozens of campaigns listed on the Crowdpac website right now, including fundraisers for specific candidates, committees, and causes. One campaign is aimed at helping potential voters get money so they can get identification to vote. Another appears to be run by Arnold Schwarzenegger in an effort to combat gerrymandering.

“Basically, anything that’s in the news right now is getting a tremendous response with social media and crowdfunding,” Jesse Thomas, the acting CEO of Crowdpac, recently told me. “And the attention is really being monetized.”

Case in point: When I spoke with Thomas late last month, the Collins-pegged crowdfunding campaign had raised $150,000. It’s now at more than $1 million.

Multiple figures who have been spurned by President Donald Trump have had success in the crowdfunding realm this year, including Stormy Daniels, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Michael Cohen. McCabe, Strzok, and Cohen ran their campaigns on GoFundMe; Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, used CrowdJustice, a fundraising website aimed at raising money for legal matters.

In the current environment, many Americans are looking to get involved in the political system any way they can — by voting, by protesting, by calling, and, yes, by donating their money.

Update: Story updated with comment from Adams-Falconer.