Kavanaugh-fueled bounty awaits challenger to Sen. Susan Collins

Maine Republican calls effort to sway her vote ‘bribery’

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon is the favorite in the Democratic primary to pick a challenger to GOP Sen. Susan Collins.  (Brian Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images file photo)
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon is the favorite in the Democratic primary to pick a challenger to GOP Sen. Susan Collins. (Brian Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 2, 2020 at 5:00am

During the acrimonious 2018 Senate fight over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, activists launched a crowdfunding campaign for Sen. Susan Collins’ would-be challenger if the Maine Republican voted for confirmation.

Opposition to Collins, who ultimately voted to put Kavanaugh on the high court, took the form of more than $4 million in donations, including some made as recently as this week after Kavanaugh sided against a high-profile abortion rights decision. The company that raised it took about 8 percent off the top initially, but $3.7 million sits in the fund, waiting for Maine’s Democratic primary to be over in a fortnight.

The campaign of Sara Gideon, speaker of the state’s House of Representatives and the front-runner in a three-candidate primary, is the expected recipient of the windfall.

The earmarked contributions, and their circuitous journey from donor to candidate and the conditions set out before the Kavanaugh vote, add an interesting twist in one of the nation’s priciest and most pivotal Senate contests. And they serve as a reminder of why Collins, who easily won reelection six years ago by 37 points, is among the most vulnerable Republican senators this cycle.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision Monday, overturned a controversial Louisiana law that would have severely limited the number of abortion clinics in the state. Kavanaugh, whose nomination fight in the Senate was dominated by a long-ago allegation of sexual assault, was among the justices on the losing side who would have upheld the restrictive law.

The “decision is a victory for reproductive freedom and protects the precedent set by Roe v. Wade,” Gideon said in a Twitter fundraising appeal. “But don’t forget: Republicans won’t stop attacking reproductive health care or nominating anti-choice judges like Kavanaugh, who Senator Collins voted to confirm.”

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Collins said in a statement that she agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision in the case and added that “while Justice Kavanaugh called for additional fact finding in this case, he gave no indication in his dissenting opinion that he supports overturning Roe.”

Following the money

Three groups — Be a Hero, Maine People’s Alliance and Mainers for Accountable Leadership — spearheaded the campaign to raise money for Collins’ challenger if she voted to confirm Kavanaugh. They used Crowdpac, a crowdfunding company that shut down in June 2019 but then came back under new ownership later that year. When Crowdpac was on hiatus and between owners, the platform was not live and people could not use it to contribute to the campaign of Collins’ future opponent, company spokesman Jeff Travers said. The campaign raised an additional $300,000 via ActBlue during that time and during periods when Crowdpac had crashed, said Liz Jaff, president of Be a Hero PAC.

It is the biggest haul of any Crowdpac campaign, Travers noted.

“Two years ago, the people of Maine joined forces with activist Ady Barkan to put a roadblock in Susan Collins’ path to reelection,” Travers told CQ Roll Call in an email. “Since then, 130,000 Americans have contributed over $4 million on Crowdpac to support Collins’ future Democratic opponent. With just two weeks to go before the primary election, everyone at Crowdpac is excited for the Democratic nominee to put these dollars to work to elect a new US Senator from the Pine Tree State.”

The pot of money also brings to the forefront the controversy surrounding its beginnings.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized in September 2018 that the crowdfunding effort amounted to an attempt to “strong-arm” Collins into opposing Kavanaugh, and the senator herself equated it with bribery.

“This is a classic quid pro quo as defined in our bribery laws,” Collins told “60 Minutes” in 2018. “They are asking me to perform an official act and if I do not do what they want, $2 million plus is going to go to my opponent. I think that if our politics has come to the point where people are trying to buy votes and buy positions, then we are in a very sad place.”

Collins campaign spokesman Kevin Kelley said in an email to CQ Roll Call that the senator’s vote was evidence that “bribery doesn’t work” on her and that threats “and other efforts to bully her did not play a factor in her decision making whatsoever.”

An outside group supporting Collins called the 1820 PAC, which is not permitted to coordinate with her campaign, preemptively blasted Gideon for taking the donations.

“This is another example of why you can’t trust sneaky Sara Gideon,” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the super PAC, who also noted that the Democrat had admitted to running afoul of campaign finance laws in an unrelated matter. Gideon acknowledged last year that her state leadership PAC had violated campaign finance law in reimbursing her for contributions to other committees.

Bozek added that Gideon now was poised to accept a “corrupt contribution without thinking twice.”

Before claiming the donations, Gideon still has to win her July 14 primary, which includes two other contenders, both of whom are activists and lawyers: Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman.

Earmarking contributions

A Gideon spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Though ethics experts flagged potential concerns about the nature of the pre-Kavanaugh-vote, anti-Collins campaign, federal election officials advised Crowdpac in 2014 that it could earmark donations for eventual nominees or prospective candidates.

“You can raise money for the eventual nominee, and you have to tell people that you’re doing precisely that,” said Karl Sandstrom, a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission, who is now senior counsel with Perkins Coie. The law firm has represented Crowdpac, but Sandstrom said he has not worked for the client and declined to discuss Crowdpac specifically.

Sandstrom added that a crowdfunding firm must collect the names and information of donors and transfer the money within 10 days.

Most of the donations for Collins’ opponent are being held by a political action committee dubbed It Starts Today, said Travers, the Crowdpac spokesman. It Starts Today reported having more than $3.7 million as of May 31. ActBlue has a separate, smaller amount ready to transfer, Be a Hero’s Jaff said.

The difference between that $3.7 million held by It Starts Today and the $4.1 million raised for the ultimate opponent to Collins may be explained by Crowdpac fees. Crowdpac formerly charged 8 percent on the contributions it collected, according to a news release from last year announcing that it was restarting under the leadership of Royal Kastens. Crowdpac’s fees went down to 3 percent after being acquired by Kastens’ company, Prytany.

When the money is transferred to the Democratic Senate nominee from Maine, it will be up to that person’s campaign to make sure that none of the donors has given in excess of the $2,800-per-election federal limit. A donor could have, theoretically, given both to the anti-Collins effort as well as directly to Gideon’s campaign, and it would be up to Gideon’s campaign to refund anything in excess of the limits, Crowdpac said.

Gideon had more than $4.6 million in the bank as of March 31, while Collins held more than $5.6 million.